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Is RPGing a *literary* endeavour?

uzirath

Adventurer
It seems an odd position to me that, in an endeavor where the main activity is describing things (what your character is doing, what the world is like, what is going on) someone can take the position that the quality of presentation of that description is pretty much irrelevant. . . . It's a reasonable position to say that the content is MORE important than the delivery, sure. But saying that it is unimportant doesn't seem terribly reasonable.

I've been idly following this thread and, although I don't wholly agree with the premise that RPGs are not literary, it doesn't seem to me that [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] is denying that delivery has an important role to play. He's simply demoting it from first place. Here are a few quotes from posts that I recall:

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.

The player is invited to adopt the perspective of the PC, and from that perspective to make a choice. This is a completely different form of engagement. . . . 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.

A GM who can't control his/her words at all is going to have trouble 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.

None of this suggests that the quality of presentation is "pretty much irrelevant."

I have continued following this discussion partly because I'm intrigued by the assertion that [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] makes about advising people new to RPGs:

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.

As someone who spends a fair amount of time teaching people how to play RPGs (adults and K-12 kids), I'm always looking for ways to get to the heart of the art form. Right now, I still can't quite wrap my head around what "working on managing framing and consequences" looks like at a beginner's table.
 

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pemerton

Legend
It seems an odd position to me that, in an endeavor where the main activity is describing things (what your character is doing, what the world is like, what is going on) someone can take the position that the quality of presentation of that description is pretty much irrelevant.

I cannot think of any other communication-based activity where anyone might say such a thing. Not movies, not art, not comics, not children playing on a playground, not business presentations, not writing, not radio, nothing.
I've given an example: conversation.

Now there is an approach to "conversation" in which style/literary quality is important: salon-style repartee, at which (say) Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker excels. But my personal experience is that most conversation isn't like this.
 

pemerton

Legend
As someone who spends a fair amount of time teaching people how to play RPGs (adults and K-12 kids), I'm always looking for ways to get to the heart of the art form. Right now, I still can't quite wrap my head around what "working on managing framing and consequences" looks like at a beginner's table.
Good question - I am a (tertiary level) teacher, but not of RPGers!

For a lot of people - and here I'm just parroting Robin Laws - I think the sense of story/drama comes from film. A dramatic scene in a film (typically) contains both opening and climax/resolution. Whereas for a GM, there has to be the compelling opening but the resolution has to be open. So how do we think about compelling scenes in this sort of way? I think it's about imagining the opening as invitation, rather than imaginging the resolution. I think thiis is something that can be meaningfully talked about with a new GM.

Just as one example, I'm thinking of the Dungeon World GM-side "move" reveal an unwelcome truth: one way to invite the players to engage the situation is to frame a situation that reveals/presents a trajectory towards something the player wishes was otherwise. This, in turn, makes us ask how can we know what the players/PCs want, which helps a new GM think about how to engage with the players in PC building.

The above is a bit ramshackle, but I hope gives some hint of what I'm thinking about.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
I've been idly following this thread and, although I don't wholly agree with the premise that RPGs are not literary, it doesn't seem to me that @pemerton is denying that delivery has an important role to play. He's simply demoting it from first place. Here are a few quotes...

Here is the original, framing statement:

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.

If we had started with a quote that said "I think the content of an RPG game is less important than the presentation of it" this thread would have lasted a day at most. Everyone agrees, we move on. But that is not the premise; the thread clearly states that the literary quality is not important.

Your collection of quotes is helpful though -- thanks! It does suggest that we have moved the goal posts enough so that we can close in agreement. The OP now believe that is is important, just not as important as content. That seems fair enough to me, so I guess we are good!
 

darkbard

Explorer
Here is the original, framing statement:

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.

If we had started with a quote that said "I think the content of an RPG game is less important than the presentation of it" this thread would have lasted a day at most. Everyone agrees, we move on. But that is not the premise; the thread clearly states that the literary quality is not important.

Your collection of quotes is helpful though -- thanks! It does suggest that we have moved the goal posts enough so that we can close in agreement. The OP now believe that is is important, just not as important as content. That seems fair enough to me, so I guess we are good!

I think you may be mistaking the premise of this thread. [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] began it, I believe, to foster discussion and analysis, not to solve something and provide closure.
 

pemerton

Legend
Just to follow up on what [MENTION=1282]darkbard[/MENTION] posted - I've found the discussion around the role of performance in RPGing interesting, as clearly there are different views about that. (Hopefully mine are clear.) But in some ways the most interesting response so far has been [MENTION=8495]uzirath[/MENTION]'s, because of the connection drawn to teaching RPing/GMing.

Part of the motivation for the OP was to respond to a trend in GM advice that I've noticed on-and-off for years (decades), and that seemed to be implicit in one or two recent threads, which emphasises the need for GMs to work on their performance skills. Whereas when I have (recently) been GMed by a new referee, the performances were fine (in the sense that sentences were produced without monotone, words were utterly clearly, etc) but the evident real demand on the GM (which he did a good job of meeting, I felt) was to manage situation and consequence. In fact when it came to consequences, he did a better job (I think) than I have done in GMing Burning Wheel, at least in appreciating the full range of consequences the system permits. I've been GMed by GMs who were better thespians, but who could have learned a thing or two from this guy whose GMed a handful of sessions!
 


uzirath

Adventurer
I think it's about imagining the opening as invitation, rather than imagining the resolution. I think this is something that can be meaningfully talked about with a new GM.

Yeah, this is interesting. A remarkable number of new GM's I've worked with are crushed when the climax they had in mind doesn't play out according to their vision. I often describe the goal as creating a situation where lots of different exciting climaxes could occur.

One way to invite the players to engage the situation is to frame a situation that reveals/presents a trajectory towards something the player wishes was otherwise. This, in turn, makes us ask how can we know what the players/PCs want, which helps a new GM think about how to engage with the players in PC building.

This is solid, too. I always encourage new GMs to keep a "cheat sheet" behind the screen with key stats on the PCs. It makes sense to also include an entry for goals, affiliations, etc. Some of this can be inferred through alignment and ideals/bonds/flaws in D&D, advantage/disadvantage choices in GURPS/DFRPG, and other items on the character sheets of different systems, but it's nice to have a shorthand version for quick reference.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This the very thing that I disagree with. Of course quality of writing and also quality of delivery is crucial to a recitation. But I'm arguing that at the heart of RPGing is an activity which is basically the antithesis of a GM reading the players some pre-written prose.

I'm also arguing that the more one tries and makes the strengths of RPGing the same as the strengths of a recitation, the harder it will be to achieve a satisfying experience. This is because writing good prose, and reading it well, is a very demanding activity; and the writing, at least, is generally a solitary activity which means that this approach to RPGing locates much of the experience not in the play at all, but rather in the preparation.

Conversely, I think most people - especially those who are interested in RPGing - have robust imaginations and a good creative urge. Which means that emphasising the contrast between RPGIng and recitation/thespianism makes it relatively easy to produce good experiences.
My example was of what a good/bad GM could do to a good/bad module but it goes the other way as well: a player could come up with the most entertaining character concept and-or personality ever but it's completely wasted if at the table she just sits there like a block of wood and never speaks in character (or speaks in a flat monotone when she does). Conversely, a player could take the most boring and-or overdone character concept out there and by her virtuoso in-character roleplay and sheer entertainment value make it the primary reason everyone keeps coming back week after week!
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't know anything about "classic text adventures".
Oh, you poor thing!

Did you never play Advent, or Zork, or any of a host of other text-only computer adventures back in the day? Puzzle-solving dialled to eleven, most of 'em, and grand fun!
 

pemerton

Legend
This is why grand pronouncements, or a unified theory of RPGs, seldom seem effective. What works (and may be true) for Burning Wheel or Prince Valiant may not be as true for Call of Cthulhu or an old-school dungeon crawl, let alone a modded Battle Tech.
When I think of old school D&D, I think of something like ToH or White Plume Mountain - it's about information, puzzles and rolling up new characters. I don't see the performance aspect looming that large myself.

As far as Cthulhu RPGing, I've been GMing some Cthulhu Dark recently and the invitation and response have been more important than the "artistry".

I can't comment on Battle Tech.
 

Hussar

Legend
Hey. Battletech is great! Played it last weekend. :)

Frankly, I see the “performance “ side of dming as just as important as the “framing” side. One without the other leads to bad games.
 

pemerton

Legend
Frankly, I see the “performance “ side of dming as just as important as the “framing” side. One without the other leads to bad games.
Careful - there are posters who dissaprove of making aesthetic claims as if they were "unified theories" of RPGing!

(Or maybe they only object to "unified theories" that aren't their's?)
 

Hussar

Legend
Careful - there are posters who dissaprove of making aesthetic claims as if they were "unified theories" of RPGing!

(Or maybe they only object to "unified theories" that aren't their's?)

Well, again, I think you'd get a lot less push back if you were to take a little less extreme position. And, heck, I can prove my point that presentation is equally as important as content.

You and I both agree that the 4e Monster Manual is full of information about the lore of monsters. We've had that conversation, so, I know you agree with that. But, there are people who will swear up and down that the 4e Monster Manual contains little to no actual lore about the monsters. The reason being, the 4e Monster Manual presents its information differently than any previous Monster Manual - mostly through bullet points and contained within the stat block itself. But, people will, to this day, insist that the 4e Monster Manual is largely bereft of any lore at all.

THAT'S how important presentation is. You gave examples from REH and E. M. Forster and then claimed that at the table, the two versions you gave, while presenting the same information, would make little difference. I think you are very wrong here. The first examples you gave would make for a much better game with greater engagement from the players than the latter examples. Like I said, how you present information is as important as the information itself.
 

pemerton

Legend
You and I both agree that the 4e Monster Manual is full of information about the lore of monsters. We've had that conversation, so, I know you agree with that. But, there are people who will swear up and down that the 4e Monster Manual contains little to no actual lore about the monsters. The reason being, the 4e Monster Manual presents its information differently than any previous Monster Manual - mostly through bullet points and contained within the stat block itself. But, people will, to this day, insist that the 4e Monster Manual is largely bereft of any lore at all.

THAT'S how important presentation is.
This is a point about marketing, not a point about RPGing.

You gave examples from REH and E. M. Forster and then claimed that at the table, the two versions you gave, while presenting the same information, would make little difference. I think you are very wrong here. The first examples you gave would make for a much better game with greater engagement from the players than the latter examples.
That's not my experience. I've played terrible games under "thespian" GMs, and terrific games under GMs who present their material in the manner of an ordinary person engaged in ordinary conversation.

What makes the difference, in my experience, is what I have called upthread the "invitation" to player response.

I think you'd get a lot less push back if you were to take a little less extreme position.
Your position - I see the “performance “ side of dming as just as important as the “framing” side - is just as extreme as mine! It's just different.

There's nothing objectionable about differences of aesthetic opinion. What irritates me a bit recently on some threads is those posters who argue that anyone expressing an opinion different from their's is (improperly) advancing a "unified theory" or "one true way" - whereas obviously their preference is just common sense!

I hope it goes without saying that you're not one of those I have in mind.
 

Hussar

Legend
Well, I would say that I'm taking a somewhat less extreme position. To me, the extreme position would be the opposite of yours, where the presentation is the most important thing and content isn't important.

I'm taking the fence sitting middle road here - they're both very important. How you present material and what you present are both very, very important. Brushing off my argument about the MM in 4e as simply "marketing" misses the point. "Marketing" and "presentation" are pretty much the same thing. You need to convince four or five people sitting around the table to listen to you for several hours while you try to paint a picture about whatever scenario it is that you're trying to sell to the players.

They call it player buy in for a very good reason. Bare bones, facts only presentations will engender similar responses. Sure, a game with lots of one or lots of the other will be able to spackle over the missing elements, but, at the end of the day, balance is needed to have a really good game.
 


pemerton

Legend
Well, I would say that I'm taking a somewhat less extreme position. To me, the extreme position would be the opposite of yours, where the presentation is the most important thing and content isn't important.

I'm taking the fence sitting middle road here - they're both very important.
Well, you did assert that they're equally important, and that's what I was responding to.

"Marketing" and "presentation" are pretty much the same thing. You need to convince four or five people sitting around the table to listen to you for several hours while you try to paint a picture about whatever scenario it is that you're trying to sell to the players.
What you describe here doesn't really fit with my own experience of RPGing. If RPGing was primarily about "painting a picture" (upthread, I used the term "recitation" which I think covers much the same conceptual terrain) then you would be correct. But that's what I'm disagreeing with in my OP.
 


Hussar

Legend
Well, you did assert that they're equally important, and that's what I was responding to.

What you describe here doesn't really fit with my own experience of RPGing. If RPGing was primarily about "painting a picture" (upthread, I used the term "recitation" which I think covers much the same conceptual terrain) then you would be correct. But that's what I'm disagreeing with in my OP.

Without "painting a picture" as you say, player interest drops and the game dies. If the DM presents nothing but bare bones facts without any exposition, no oratory, no actual theatricalism (if I could coin a term), then that DM is going to lose his players to other forms of media which ARE far more entertaining. Like it or not, being entertaining is part and parcel to good DMing and particularly important to good scenario design. And part of being entertaining is how you present that information.
 

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