RPG Theory- The Limits of My Language are the Limits of My World

A long time ago, I took an advanced critical theory course where every week, we had to write a paper analyzing the same text using a different method of critical theory analysis. One week it would me Marxist theory, another week psychoanalytic theory, another week third-work approach (measure it against the standards articulated from another work, like Burke's On the Sublime and Beautiful), another week semiotic and structuralist, another week post-structuralist, another week authorial intent, and so on. The purpose was to show how the same text would produce different meanings depending on the approach used; that instead of focusing on the "correct reading" it was best to think of different theoretical approaches as different tools with which to retrieve meaning. There wasn't a single correct theory- but the theory you used was determinative of the types of meaning you would end up with. A Marxist approach tended to reveal a lot of elements of class struggle and power relations, whereas a psychological analysis is more likely to reveal elements of the characters' conscious and subconscious motivations.

In this way studying literature requires acceptance and even embrace of uncertainty, contradiction, and ambiguity, at least to a certain degree. You can thus learn to say meaningful things about, say, a poem, without driving analysis towards a singular and inevitable end.

The "game design" aspect of rpg theory seems to veer more often towards normative and prescriptive categorization and analysis of types of games, even in its "soft" manifestations ('7 types of gamer' etc). I'm generally more interested in thinking, sometimes abstractly, about rpgs as a social activity (hence my general delight at incoherence, inconsistency, playing "wrong," etc).


1. Role-playing Game Studies. This is an academic work, but is interesting and has the majority of chapters available to the public on-line.
2. The Elusive Shift. Jon Peterson's book. Available at amazon and others.
3. Tabletop RPG Design in Theory and Practice at the Forge, 2001–2012. William J. White. Available at amazon and others (expensive).
4. Designers & Dragons. Shannon Applecline. (I think some of this has been superseded by newer material from Peterson, but sill good). Available with a free TSR section of 100 pages at evilhat.
5. Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Pat Harrigan. Available at amazon and others.
6. Great roundup of web-based resources at Black & Green Games.
7. Playground Worlds. Some ideas, with a strong emphasis from the Nordic community, available on-line.

Great set of references! To quote from one of the articles in item (1):

Finally, RPG theorizing participates in the politics of culture: To theorize and critically discern RPGs, one must develop both knowledge of and a sense of taste for RPGs. By demonstrating such knowledge and taste in evaluating, appreciating, or rejecting some subject matter, we accrue social and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984). Every theoretical contribution is thus fundamentally intertwined with one’s social position: to do RPG theory is always also to manage one’s public impression as a theorist within specific (intended) social networks (Goffman 1959). And since RPG theory holds only meager academic and societal status, most RPG theory and criticism is produced by critical amateurs for critical amateurs. “Taste,” as Hennion (2005, 135) puts it, “is a productive activity of critical amateurs”.
 

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To me, the use of RPG theory jargon isn't all that problematic--if someone is joining a discussion about RPG theory, they should be able to handle either asking for looking up the definitions and context of a handful of terms. If not, there will always be tons of other threads to jump into that aren't about RPG theory.

The context of the discussion is certainly important. The problem comes in if someone posts about the 'World's Greatest,' for example. Imo, that's a clear signal that the discussion is meant to be accessible to a wide group of people who might not have access or interest in a specific vocabulary.

It took me a lot longer than it should have for me to get into either 'story games' or osr games just because every time I tried to learn more about them it felt like I jumped into a pit of toxic arguments over nothing (or, subtweeted drama that made no sense unless you were an insider).
 

loverdrive

Prophet of the profane (She/Her)
Kind of tangent, but…

I think that the main problem with any kind of TTRPG discussion, theory, and whatnot is the fuzziness of the term itself. If:
  • Solving tactical and strategic problems in hostile, “fantasy Vietnam” environment…
  • Char-op and hacking and slashing…
  • Immersing oneself in an imaginary world, speaking in funny voices and all that…
  • Experiencing a linear, GM-authored story with an agreement between the participants to not “break” it…
  • Collaborative storytelling in a director stance and all that genre emulation jazz…
  • Playing a solo game with journaling and random tables to generate prompts…
…is TTRPGing, then, what isn't? At which point we can say that activity X isn't a TTRPG? Even the “tabletop” part is a questionable criterion — we live in 2E 21 and a lot of games are played online, and even before that, many games don't really have a use for a table.

Of course people butt heads all the ####ing time! Why wouldn't they?
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Kind of tangent, but…

I think that the main problem with any kind of TTRPG discussion, theory, and whatnot is the fuzziness of the term itself. If:
  • Solving tactical and strategic problems in hostile, “fantasy Vietnam” environment…
  • Char-op and hacking and slashing…
  • Immersing oneself in an imaginary world, speaking in funny voices and all that…
  • Experiencing a linear, GM-authored story with an agreement between the participants to not “break” it…
  • Collaborative storytelling in a director stance and all that genre emulation jazz…
  • Playing a solo game with journaling and random tables to generate prompts…
…is TTRPGing, then, what isn't? At which point we can say that activity X isn't a TTRPG? Even the “tabletop” part is a questionable criterion — we live in 2E 21 and a lot of games are played online, and even before that, many games don't really have a use for a table.

Of course people butt heads all the ####ing time! Why wouldn't they?

So, two things.

First, I think reading Peterson's other book (Elusive Shift) shows you that these debates (What is a TTRPG? Is it rules or role-play? Dramatic beats or wargame-y combat? Story or simulation? etc.) are as old as TTRPGs themselves.

Second, I don't think that the issue is particular to TTRPGs. For example, films can be about superheroes or normal people, the past or the future, funny or sad, genre or realistic, fiction or non-fiction, linear or non-linear, narrative or non-narrative, etc. ... yet they are all films. There is still something that we can call "film theory" (or film criticism).

If anything, I'd say that the problems with TTRPG Theory (esp. w/r/t the TT part if you're neglecting the nordic and LARPing branches) is twofold- first, that the scope of material for analysis isn't too broad, but too narrow. Unlike most mature fields, even later ones video games, there aren't a lot of subjects- its a field traditionally dominated by iterations and variations of a single product, with other niche products and indie products making up the remainder. Second, that people focus too much on just the theory of abstract design, and don't allow for the experience of the consumer/market.

On the second (which I will expand on later in a different thread), it's more an issue that other fields tend to at least tacitly acknowledge that somethings that are "good" may or may not be "popular" and vice versa- it's sort of the difference between a great piece of art, and something that is widely appealing to a large number of people- that isn't always the same thing. Anyway, TTRPG theory to date often doesn't take into account that particular issue.
 

loverdrive

Prophet of the profane (She/Her)
Second, I don't think that the issue is particular to TTRPGs. For example, films can be about superheroes or normal people, the past or the future, funny or sad, genre or realistic, fiction or non-fiction, linear or non-linear, narrative or non-narrative, etc. ... yet they are all films. There is still something that we can call "film theory" (or film criticism).
I think, films, unlike TTRPGs aren't viewed as homogenous substance. There are genres, movements, and many narrow categories.

Now, when I thought about it for more than five seconds, I think the constant arguments over playstyles (and subsequent turn to “ah, do whatever as long as you have fun!” nonsense I'm not a fan of) is caused not only by the lack of clear shortcuts to describe whatever it is they like, or an assumption that their playstyle is the norm (something I'm definitely guilty of), but also by the fact that people who do theory, criticism and all that are the same people who play the damn games!

When someone says that a scene X in film Y is bad or stupid or distasteful, even if you like that movie, it's still criticism of someone else's work. When someone says something about running or playing TTRPGs, it's a much more personal thing. In a way, they criticize you, even if they genuinely mean well.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I think, films, unlike TTRPGs aren't viewed as homogenous substance. There are genres, movements, and many narrow categories.

I agree! Which is what I was alluding to with this part-
"Unlike most mature fields, even later ones video games, there aren't a lot of subjects- its a field traditionally dominated by iterations and variations of a single product, with other niche products and indie products making up the remainder."

Most "internet" TTRPG theory (as opposed to the occasional academic work) tends to treat TTRPGs as a single things to be "solved." In the OP, that's generally what I think of when I think of as an issue- I think that different TTRPGs serve different audiences (tables)- and what works for some doesn't work for others.

When someone says that a scene X in film Y is bad or stupid or distasteful, even if you like that movie, it's still criticism of someone else's work. When someone says something about running or playing TTRPGs, it's a much more personal thing. In a way, they criticize you, even if they genuinely mean well.

Eh, while I want to agree with you, I think you might be underestimating the level of fandom and identification.

Try wading into any film thread and having a rational discussion about Marvel vs. DC films ... or, for that matter, the relative merits of the most recent three Star Wars films.*

I honestly think it's probably just a byproduct of the internet and the manner of discussion of forums sometimes- it tends to lead to extremes. And a lack of nuance. And it's hard to discern tone. That sort of thing.


*Seriously, the weirdest time I was insulted & ignored on this forum was when I made a joke about Return of the Jedi. ... People take some things very seriously. Very, very seriously! Either that or it was some kind of Ewok/Furry thing going on. Not that I'm judging.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
There's no workable definition that won't exclude some people, games, and playstyles and any definition broad enough to intentionally include everyone, every game, and every playstyle will by necessity be too broad to be useful or meaningful.

So, I ask: useful or meaningful... for what? All definitions are communications. All communication has an intended audience and purpose. And yes, if you use a term that is defined for one purpose, and use it for another, you will have failures in communication.

I suggest that very broad genre definitions (like "sports" or "sandwich" or "literature" or "RPG") are not useful for critical analysis, but they were never really intended for critical analysis. They're general use, introductory words.

Since literary analysis was brought up at the start, let us keep going with that - we have already noted that literary analysis is not one thing. It is several disparate frameworks. And when applying them, we usually break down the overall literature space into conceptually manageable chunks. We do Psychological Analysis of Postmodern American Literature, for example.


In other words, if the only reason someone is dropping into a thread is to secure validation for their playstyle, that's just asking for trouble, and also a bit depressing.

Well, there's a question to be asked, related to what overgeeked said above - Are we clear to ourselves about how our discussion really cannot be general to all RPGs? Are we up-front to others about it? Do we forgetfully elide into discussing as if our framework is universal, or is meaningfully applied to all RPGs?

Hint: A lot of RPG theory-talk does forget its limitations, and either stakes out an explicit claim of being TEH TRVTH! or slides into taking a position of general validity that it does not deserve. And then folks are understandably put out that that... arrogance, for lack of a better term.

This is why I advocated for starting with what playstyle or goals of play you intend to discuss.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
Second, I don't think that the issue is particular to TTRPGs. For example, films can be about superheroes or normal people, the past or the future, funny or sad, genre or realistic, fiction or non-fiction, linear or non-linear, narrative or non-narrative, etc. ... yet they are all films. There is still something that we can call "film theory" (or film criticism).

FIlm theory/criticism does not pretend to be one thing, though. It recognizes that it is a "body of work", a collection. And a good critic doesn't usually apply the standards of European Art Film to a Superhero Blockbuster.

This is because art theory and criticism is not, for the most part, an evaluation of the goals of the artist. It is an evaluation of how well the artist met their goals using their chosen tools.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Honestly even discussing a lot of the games I like or the experience I am after often gets taken as theorizing when it's a whole lot less theoretical than most of the stuff Justin Alexander talks about on the Alexandrian. Sometimes calling discussion of play outside the norm as "RPG theory" feels like a way to basically dismiss it and people that like it as ivory tower elitists. That sucks.
 

Hint: A lot of RPG theory-talk does forget its limitations, and either stakes out an explicit claim of being TEH TRVTH! or slides into taking a position of general validity that it does not deserve. And then folks are understandably put out that that... arrogance, for lack of a better term.

This is why I advocated for starting with what playstyle or goals of play you intend to discuss.
I think this is spot on. As @loverdrive 's talked about in other threads the hobby could benefit from widespread recognition of what (iirc) she calls different schools of RPGs. Until that happens a lot of these conversations will continue to lose focus, because someone will inevitably show up and start making sweeping statements about all RPGs, when really they're just talking about the specific style of game they play or run most often, or even exclusively.

But I also think we're doing ourselves a disservice if we use the same sort of both-sides, everybody's-wrong framing that makes a lot of political discourse so useless. IME the people who rappel into a thread that's explicitly about RPG theory, or that's veering into that territory, and start mucking things up with aggrieved assertions about how they've always run their games and why are we talking about these dumb approaches and mechanics anyway because no game should ever have mechanics for social encounters or hard framing or really anything other than combat...well, let's just say they aren't exactly crazy for PbtA.

Maybe I've missed some crucial threads where Dogs in the Vineyard fanatics are constantly throwing bombs about how collaborative storytelling is the only option and everything else is inferior. As is the case with discussing film or literature or other creative mediums, RPG theory discussions often to get into comparative criticisms and discussions, comparing and contrasting how different systems and settings and even specific mechanics tackle a given challenge. Those are the threads where I feel like discussion devolves when folks essentially barge in to say, Who cares, cause this is how I play.

Like, fine, go play how you want. But if your style of play doesn't merit any discussion at the level of theory and doesn't benefit from comparisons with other systems, plus you're also just here to repeatedly assert what you do at your table...it's a big site. There's probably a thread just above or just below that's about death saves or how psionics might work in a new Dark Sun.
 

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