Is RPGing a *literary* endeavour?

pemerton

Legend
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.
Again, all I can really say is that this is not my experience. My group has been meeting every fortnight or so for 20-odd years. If we were young and free like we once were, it would probably be more often! (As it was back in the 90s.)

I've been the GM for most of that time. I'm not notorious for my modesty, but I've also got a reasonable sense of my limitations. I'm not a great performer. The reason I haven't lost "my" players isn't because they find me entertaining. It's because RPGing offers a different experience from other sorts of entertainment.

This is what I mean when I talk about orienting towrads the strengths of RPGing (ie the collective creativity, and from the player's point of view being the protagonist) rather than the weaknesses (ie that amateur performers/storytellers will compete with professionals).
 

Hussar

Legend
Why would you be competing with anyone? So long as the performance is good enough for that group, things are fine. I suppose if you found a group that didn't bother with any actual oratory, played in complete monotone all the time, never bothered with an adjective or five, or something like that, then, well, fantastic.

But, the flip side is also true. So long as the content is good enough for that group, everyone is happy. I'll freely admit that someone like, say, Eric Mona, can write a better adventure than I can. My ego is not so fragile as to believe otherwise. Yet, I can write a good enough adventure that folks still come back.

IOW, again, you need both.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
For me...
The presentation of the game needs to be good enough to convey clearly the rules.
The rules need to be good enough that they don't inhibit good story from evolving.
The GM (usually me, in my case) needs to be good enough to know when to use the rules or not; when to pick from yes, no, or roll the dice.

Great GMs make bad systems work by a mix of houserules, careful choices, and compelling situations.

For me, my success as a GM hinges on giving my players meaningful choices in play, then following through with appropriate reactions to that.

Aside from initially learning the rules and looking up complex elements when needed, the presentation is mostly immaterial. I make cheat sheets for my own use, extracting what I think is needed, and often, revising mid-campaign....

But, on the getting me to buy and read in the first place, presentation matters.
Overdone actually makes me LESS likely to buy.
Underdone? Doesn't give me confidence in the content... but I'm more likely to look at it than overproduced stuff.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I've posted more than once, in reply to you, about some recent play of horror RPGs. You haven't responded.
So, I think I've mentioned the difficulty is twofold-

One, your individual play experiences with your group of 20+ years does not translate into universal play. This is the usual, "An anecdote is not data." (Technically, an anecdote can be a datum, but you know what I mean). Heck, my play experiences with my old group (aka, grognards) is decidedly different than when I DM to teach kids.

Second, you usually reference games that are ... well, not universally played or known (often indie games). There is nothing wrong with that, but given your frames of references are usually IIRC Prince Valiant, BiTD, and now Cthulhu Dark, it is difficult to parse the difference in play experience due to the rules that you are playing under. I'd rather not have to learn a whole new play system in order to simply understand your examples. Moreover, I don't think that they would translate well to a wider, and more general point, about RPGs given that they are fairly niche in the market. Not that this is bad, or good, but it would be similar to making a general point about blockbusters in cinema today by using The Forbidden Room.

That said, briefly looking up Cthulhu Dark, it would appear that your experience is somewhat idiosyncratic (construed by me, that horror is not, and should not be, generated by "performance" or "description" or "narration" but solely by internal processes; aka "call and response"); these are the first three reviews I found by using google-

https://yawningportal.org/cthulhu-dark-review/

"Cthulhu Dark is truly a storytelling game about Lovecraftian horror. ...This is a game about horror and it takes that role seriously. The designers have gone the extra mile in helping game masters create their own mysteries and on how to convey horror and describe it so that the players actually feel it."


http://roleoverplaydead.com/rpg-review-cthulhu-dark-2017/

"The book also features practical and useful guidance for the game master to craft horror mysteries in a variety of historical, modern or future settings. Walmsley, the lead writer, discusses the use of recurring and often inexplicable imagery and elements, called Creeping Horrors, to ratchet up players’ unease and bafflement. And he includes a section with concise but flavourful outlines of Lovecraftian monsters and threats, and the themes associated with them. ... Cthulhu Dark discusses many disturbing elements: death and destruction, breeding with monsters, cursed bloodlines, mental abduction, the end of the world, and more. "


https://www.dreadcentral.com/reviews/285500/cthulhu-dark-review-insane-non-euclidian-fun/

"Cthulhu Dark has some excellent guides for how to tell a horror story. One of my favorite tools the game has for doing this is what it calls “creeping horrors” ... The rulebook is chock-full of Lovecraftian storytelling tools and tips like the creeping horrors." etc.


So, yeah. I don't know, man. Seems like your experience and the ones that the reviewers had was different (but again, I don't know since I'm not familiar with that particular game).

I appreciate that you have a long-standing group of players, and that you have a playingstyle that works for you and your group. Again, I wish you would stop universalizing your playing experiences to everyone else; different groups have different experiences, and I think you'd get a lot more traction if you'd approach things in a more, "This is what I do, and how I have fun (see @Manbearcat )" and less, "RPGs are not literary, and presentation doesn't matter." But that's your call.
 
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pemerton

Legend
Why would you be competing with anyone?
You said "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." That seems to rest on a premise, which I think is plausible, that leisure time is finite and hence RPGing has to offer something worthwhile to its participants.

I think that what RPGing offers which is worthwhile is something that is different from what other media offer. Performance isn't a different sort of offering.
 

pemerton

Legend
So, yeah. I don't know, man. Seems like your experience and the ones that the reviewers had was different (but again, I don't know since I'm not familiar with that particular game).
I suspect they're reviewing the recent Kickstarted version rather than the 4-page PDF that I downloaded 5 or so years ago.

The stuff that you have quoted reminds me of Kenneth Hite's old book Nightmares of Mine.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I suspect they're reviewing the recent Kickstarted version rather than the 4-page PDF that I downloaded 5 or so years ago.

The stuff that you have quoted reminds me of Kenneth Hite's old book Nightmares of Mine.
It could; regardless, I would think that most (not all, but most) people would think that the differences between, say, a TTRPG that focuses on horror, comedy, and (generic) fantasy isn't necessarily in the rule set, or the dice you use (or don't use, if it's diceless), but in the "atmosphere" and the tools provided to help the DM with narration and/or the players with immersion.*

Put another way, you can certainly make a case that TTRPGs allow for some different techniques than other media, in the same sense that cinema is different than stage is different than books is different than videogames.

I think that you will continue to get well-deserved pushback to the extent you insist that standard storytelling techniques that have been used and honed for millennia, and have application (albeit with translation in some cases) in all sorts of media, have no use in TTRPGs, especially given how oration there is in most TTRPGs.

Also-

That seems to rest on a premise, which I think is plausible, that leisure time is finite and hence RPGing has to offer something worthwhile to its participants.

I think that what RPGing offers which is worthwhile is something that is different from what other media offer. Performance isn't a different sort of offering.
So, this makes two errors IMO. The first is that given leisure time is finite, that RPGs must by definition present a superior and differentiated option to participants, or they will not play. That's not how it works; people use their time sub-optimally all the time. Sometimes it is because people are lazy and something is easy ("I'm too lazy to change the channel / What's next on Netflix?"). Sometimes it is because of path dependency ("Why do I watch Favorite Football Team? Because my father, and my father's father, watched them!"). Sometimes it's other reasons ("Scotchy scotch scotch.").

And the other point is certainly personal to you; it's sort of like, "Why am I correct? Because I think I am, that's why!" There are lots of reasons people play TTRPGs- here, let me list a few-
1. Nostalgia. "I played that years ago, I'd like to experience that again."

2. Face time. "Everyone is always looking at their phone; I'd like to have a game night!"

3. Path Dependency. "Jake and Sid are at the Saturday D&D session at the library? Really? I guess I'll go and play, too."

4. A good hang. "Pizza, beer, some laughs, and some friends."

There's really all sorts of reasons people play, and that list is hardly exclusive. But IME, people need a hook to get them involved- and as people continually point out, if everything was done in monotone, with no emphasis, with no .... performance at all ... then they wouldn't play. I know I wouldn't. Heck, if my PLAYERS did that, I wouldn't DM. I don't need Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, but I need some level of enthusiasm and buy-in.


*Especially comedy; this is one of the harder ones to run, and while there are systems that work great as one-shots, I am hard-pressed to think of a great long-form comedic TTRPG.
 

Hussar

Legend
You said "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." That seems to rest on a premise, which I think is plausible, that leisure time is finite and hence RPGing has to offer something worthwhile to its participants.

I think that what RPGing offers which is worthwhile is something that is different from what other media offer. Performance isn't a different sort of offering.
Well, I'd say that rather depends on how you define "performance". Is a live performance the same as a recorded one? I wouldn't say so. I'd never sit and do nothing but listen to a single band's music on CD for hours on end. But, I'd certainly go to a concert by that band and listen for a few hours. Heck, live music, frequently, isn't even as good as what you get on a CD, but, I'll still go see a live gig over just sitting in a room and listening to the same songs.

And, sure, RPGing does offer something that most other media offer - frustration, arguments, bad feelings... oh, wait... no, that's not it. :D Joking aside, RPGing does offer different things - direct participation is obviously one of those things. Sure. I agree that it's important. But, again, that's just one of the things. I can get just as much direct interaction in a video game as any RPG. It's presentation that does play a huge role though.
 

pemerton

Legend
Well, I'd say that rather depends on how you define "performance". Is a live performance the same as a recorded one? I wouldn't say so.

<snip>

RPGing does offer different things - direct participation is obviously one of those things. Sure. I agree that it's important. But, again, that's just one of the things. I can get just as much direct interaction in a video game as any RPG. It's presentation that does play a huge role though.
I've snipped the middle because I think the top and tail are closely connected.

I want to build on the idea of a live performance. I don't know if you play any music yourself - I'm a (very) amateur guitarist, who plays for his own pleasure, sometimes for friends and family, occasionally for students. These are all contexts where who I am, who it is who's making the music, matters as much or more than the quality of the music.

This aspect of participation (when I play for my own pleasure) and of human connection in a creative experience (playing for family, friends, students) is very key to what's enjoyable, for me, in making music. I don't have the talent to even think of being a professional performer, but that lack of talent has only a modest bearing on what is valuable and pleausrable both for me and for my audiences.

I see RPGing as having affinities to this. The particiaption, the human connections, the shared pleasure in creation - and the structures (role allocations, mechanics, etc) that help mediate this and give it direction and purpose and yield a particular experience - are fundamental.

I'm very shocked to read that you can get the same experience from a video game. I'm not sure how much you're exaggerating, or how much is related to the fact that you play online rather than face-to-face. But I assume when you play online you have voice (and camera?) and so still get the human connection.
 

Hussar

Legend
Meh. Humans are over rated. :D

Ok, that was a joke. But, the thing is, sure, you're playing music for your friends and family. Great. But, you still actually perform no? You try to play the music in such a way that everyone enjoys it.

Look, I'm not saying that content isn't important. Of course it is. But, to use your playing guitar example, if content was all that mattered, then, well, you could play without actually hitting a single note on a completely out of tune guitar and people would still like it. Since that's obviously not true, then presentation does matter.

OTOH, as far as can you get the same experience from a video game? Perhaps not. It's pretty darn close though. Games have progressed to the point where you have very open ended stories, allowing for all sorts of interactions, creating very personal experiences.

Then again, no, I don't see RPG's as anything remotely like anything other than a (somewhat complicated) game. That's all they are. I could have a great time playing Euchre for three hours as well. And, part of playing an RPG is the performance aspect of it. Performance is a big part - whether it's the art for my virtual tabletop game, or selecting a decent soundtrack to go with the session, or my own personal performance, it's all important to the experience.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
One, your individual play experiences with your group of 20+ years does not translate into universal play. This is the usual, "An anecdote is not data." (Technically, an anecdote can be a datum, but you know what I mean). Heck, my play experiences with my old group (aka, grognards) is decidedly different than when I DM to teach kids.

Second, you usually reference games that are ... well, not universally played or known (often indie games). There is nothing wrong with that, but given your frames of references are usually IIRC Prince Valiant, BiTD, and now Cthulhu Dark ...
In fairness, [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] also sometimes references 4e D&D and - a bit less often - Moldvay Basic D&D; both of which were a fair bit closer to the mainstream in their day. That said, I'm not sure he runs/ran either system entirely as written (but then, do any of us?) preferring instead to overlay a story-now aesthetic on them.

Also, if memory serves he's more into Burning Wheel than BitD, but I could be wrong on this one.
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm not saying that content isn't important.

<snip>

I don't see RPG's as anything remotely like anything other than a (somewhat complicated) game. That's all they are. I could have a great time playing Euchre for three hours as well. And, part of playing an RPG is the performance aspect of it.
I agree that RPGs are games. But it would be a cold day in hell before I'd trade in my RPG time for euchre!

I'm not sure that content quite captures what I'm talking about, although it's clearly in the neighbourhood. It's the participatory creation, which - on the player side - is about response as protagonist.

people use their time sub-optimally all the time.
It would be a sad thing if the best pitch we could make for RPGing is Would you like to spend your leisure time sub-optimally?
 

Bedrockgames

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 pretty much agree. My feelings on this are whenever I've encountered efforts to make the game more literary, you end up fighting against the nature of the medium. The biggest thing being you really can't control what players do. In a novel the characters are under the control of the writer. It would be more like trying to write a novel in a computer program where the characters have free will and respond to the author's descriptions. But that strikes me as very non-literary and more in the realm of game.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
It would be a sad thing if the best pitch we could make for RPGing is Would you like to spend your leisure time sub-optimally?
That's not the point, and I think you know that. Most people wouldn't say that they are using their time sub-optimally (or they might be, "Yeah, I know I should be working out instead of eating potato chips and watching TV"). How they spend their time in actuality is, in fact, a revealed preference.

I just disagree with you in two ways*-

First, that there is some objective (as opposed to subjective) standard for RPGs that people are using to determine how to effectively allocate their leisure time.

Second, that your characterization is correct; I mean, not only did I list a whole bunch of things that you omitted, you also seem to have conveniently forgotten that performance is a two-way street, not just receptive. Or, by definition, is there no such thing as community theater in your world either?





*Three, if you count selectively quoting me to make a bad point. I mean, I wrote a lot- and again, that's all you have to say.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I pretty much agree. My feelings on this are whenever I've encountered efforts to make the game more literary, you end up fighting against the nature of the medium. The biggest thing being you really can't control what players do. In a novel the characters are under the control of the writer. It would be more like trying to write a novel in a computer program where the characters have free will and respond to the author's descriptions. But that strikes me as very non-literary and more in the realm of game.
The issue of authorial intent with interactive media is hardly new; I remember the issue of authorial intent with hypertext (in the context of philosophy) in 1994 when Mosaic was still a thing.

Just because it's different, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.


*To a certain extent, you have the issue of terms, as well, as in, "What does "literary" mean?" Which is why I keep going back to the reason that this thread was created; specifically, that the OP did not believe that narration or presentation (or "performance") was important (from either the DM or the players), and that emotional states should not, and could not, be generated in RPGs from that, but only through framing and decision-making. Which others disagree with.

In other words, it's an issue not about "plotting out a campaign," but rather about whether or not we should care about any performative aspects in RPGs, or if they are meaningless- mere ribbons, the same as "acting out" your alien in Cosmic Encounter.
 
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Bedrockgames

Adventurer
The issue of authorial intent with interactive media is hardly new; I remember the issue of authorial intent with hypertext (in the context of philosophy) in 1994 when Mosaic was still a thing.

Just because it's different, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.


*To a certain extent, you have the issue of terms, as well, as in, "What does "literary" mean?" Which is why I keep going back to the reason that this thread was created; specifically, that the OP did not believe that narration or presentation (or "performance") was important (from either the DM or the players), and that emotional states should not, and could not, be generated in RPGs from that, but only through framing and decision-making. Which others disagree with.

In other words, it's an issue not about "plotting out a campaign," but rather about whether or not we should care about any performative aspects in RPGs, or if they are meaningless- mere ribbons, the same as "acting out" your alien in Cosmic Encounter.
I honestly am not sure what you are saying
 

Hussar

Legend
I honestly am not sure what you are saying
Just to add to what [MENTION=48965]Imaro[/MENTION] said, and hopefully clarify the point of this thread. At least, to the point to which I understand it anyway (which, given previous history, might not be understanding what's going on at all... :p)

From what I understand, we are positing that there are two main elements of an RPG - what I've termed content and what I've termed performance.

I define content, in the context of this thread, to mean all the stuff that goes into playing an RPG. Laying out a scenario, building a scene with the players and the DM creating a back and forth conversation which resolves the scenario, rolling dice, that sort of thing. All the stuff that's, more or less, specifically called out by the rules of whatever RPG you're playing. IOW, content=stuff that you need to play the game. You cannot play an RPG without content, well, unless your RPG is akin to Godot: The Waitening. :D

Performance, on the other hand, isn't really defined by the rules of an RPG. It might be referenced, but, it's generally not actually specifically needed. An RPG without any performance probably looks a lot like a computer game, IMO. You lay out the scenario, and then click the buttons in a certain way and resolve the scenario. The only real difference between tabletop and computer game is complexity - you can obviously do more to resolve a scenario in a tabletop RPG. However, while performance isn't specifically called out by the rules of an RPG, it is absolutely vital to play. How you present the scenario will drastically change the nature of that scenario. Simply dropping bare bones description in a monotone voice with nothing but the most essential of adjectives makes for a really boring game, despite the fact that it has all the content in the world.

Really, I think this is why horror is so difficult to do in a TTRPG. It's so easy for someone to drop a fart joke in the middle of a scene and turn it into farce. Something about picking up dice seems to bring out the inner 12 year old in a lot of us. :D Which makes the performance aspect more difficult that it might seem.

I've got a decent example here actually. I just finished running Dragon Heist for my bunch. Now, in the final scenario, it's a dungeon crawl. But, there's no boxed text at all - just point form descriptions of the rooms. Bare bones stuff. There's a fresco on the wall, there's carvings of dwarves on the door, that sort of thing. No actual performance at all. And the scene totally fell flat. The players just went through the whole adventure without really giving a damn because, well, whoopee, there's carvings of dwarves. It wasn't until I started getting a lot more expressive about my description of this lost, dwarven tomb, created by a dwarven empire that had fallen a thousand years before Waterdeep was founded, crumbling walkways, smells, etc that the players actually started getting into the feel of the adventure.

Content is important. Totally agree. But, content without performance has no soul. Has no impact. Your performance, as a DM, AND as a player (give the DM something to work with here, you lazy assed players), is needed to really bring the game to life.
 

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