Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Responding to “The joy of reading role-playing games”

Okay, I really have to comment on this one. Most of the text from the article is here in pull quotes. But do be sure to read the whole thing.

I’m a lifelong fan of role-playing games, but I rarely play them. Dungeons & Dragons. Call of Cthulhu. Vampire: The Masquerade. Cyberpunk 2013. Traveller. I’ve been enchanted by the words and illustrations, and drawn into the imaginary worlds of as many RPGs as novels. So I’m always surprised, and a little dismayed, when RPGs are left out of the popular discussion about books and reading.

Spoken like a man that does not read the Castalia House blog. Heck, even Black Gate and and The Escapist have plenty of gaming related posts that delve into the literature that inspired them. Never mind the hundreds of game blogs that kick this stuff around day in and day out. Good grief, man, you’re not the first person to get the idea to write on this topic.

Though the term didn’t exist back when I was a teenager, squatting on comic-book floors to thumb through expensive hardback editions, RPGs are an example of the kind of literature described by Espen J Aarseth as “ergodic”. These are books, like digital literature, computer-generated poetry and MUDs, where a “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. And they are more common than you might think, especially in geek culture. Game books that allow you to “choose your own adventure” are ergodic, as are fantasy novels with extensive maps and world-building notes. But the RPG handbook pushes ergodic reading to its limit.

RPGs are arguably (as S. John Ross has said) the apex of genre fiction. What’s interesting about them is not the fact that they can be categorized under the umbrella of an academic term right alongside text adventures and choose your own adventure books. What’s interesting about them is the fact that they are insanely fun.

By putting aside simple narrative storytelling and replacing it with detailed description, the RPG offers the total immersion in an imaginary world so valued by geek readers. The elaboration of leading characters, political factions and major historical events is sometimes a very dry exercise in world building, but done with enough skill it can spark a deeply satisfying response.

Okay, now this is where it is clear that you don’t actually play these games all that much. There is a particular sort of game master that comes off more as a failed novelist than someone that is keen on mastering a game. Their works within the medium– particularly when they get paid by the word– are almost uniformly atrocious. The things that seem excite you as a game book reader are the things that are least relevant to getting a good game experience.

For writers such as Junot Díaz, who often played Dungeon Master, RPGs were “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship”, where he “learned a lot of important essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play”.

Junot Díaz’s greatest contribution to gaming was that he dropped out of it when he finally got to the point in life where he could get a girlfriend. Seriously, though… why is it that “journalists” always have to bring this guy up every single time they talk about tabletop gaming. This guy has nothing to do with it. He is not an authority on it. It’s like every topic is an opportunity for you to talk about a couple of your buddies. It’s weird.

China Miéville talks about a childhood playing RPGs – which gave him a “mania for cataloguing the fantastic” and a “weird fetish for systematisation”. For Miéville, the best weird fiction is at “the intersection of the traditions of surrealism with those of pulp”.

“I don’t start with the graph paper and the calculators like a particular kind of D&D dungeonmaster,” Miéville explains: “I start with an image, as unreal and affecting as possible, just like the surrealists. But then I systematise it, and move into a different kind of tradition.”

China’s a great guy, I’m sure. But again, here… there are a lot of people that played RPGs when they were kids. The people that only did that, regardless of how they distinguished themselves elsewhere, really don’t have anything of interest to say on the subject. Again, this is really weird.

First published in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons became the first globally successful RPG because it encapsulated the genre of heroic fantasy. Stories of Robert E Howard, Fritz Lieber and Jack Vance were little-read in the 1970s, but Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson used them to provide the character archetypes and world for their game. In turn Dungeons & Dragons spawned a revival of heroic fantasy fiction and also inspired the video game makers who would create a swathe of massively successful computer RPGs.

Yeah, not like all those other RPGs that came out before D&D. Man, if you’re an expert on all of those games, you really owe us a few blog posts on that topic. I bet a lot of people would love to hear what you say about those!

Great RPG writers give players a sophisticated narrative framework, with which they too can be great storytellers. Epidiah Ravachol’s indie RPG Swords Without Master is a brilliant example of such expert game making. In just a few dozen pages Ravachol dissects the structure of heroic fantasy narrative into its archetypal parts. Swords Without Master is a very different game to D&D, reflecting the shift within RPG design away from rules and dice rolls, towards pure storytelling…

The pleasures of reading Ravachol are not entirely abstract. The reader is drawn in to a world of “strange sorceries, brutal violence and astounding wonder” right from the first page…. You emerge from reading Swords Without Master not only convinced you understand every nuance of heroic fantasy, but also with the impression of having spent time in a world very different from our own.

Okay, so what. If I want to be drawn into a world, I read a novel. If I’m going to judge this game… I want to know how it plays. I want to know what kind of experience its players are liable to have. Again, this idea of you getting your kicks reading an RPG and then dressing up the whole thing in some sort of pseudo-academic jargon is really weird.

Shock : Social Science Fiction by Joshua AC Newman performs a similar trick with the complex beast that is science fiction. Writers and critics of SF have argued for decades about what defines the genre, a Gordian Knot that Newman cuts through like a 21st-century Alexander the Great. Shock allows players to explore near future worlds which have been disrupted by “Shocks”. But what makes a shock a “Shock”?

Okay, now you really lost me. I mean… are you seriously talking about using your experience of not playing games to improve your experience of not writing science fiction? That’s pretty out there even for the Guardian!

These gems of indie RPG design are only the tip of what is now a very sizable industry. When the fifth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Guide was published in 2014 it took the No 1 spot on

Pulp adventure RPG Planet Mercenary recently became the latest in a long line of RPG-related Kickstarters to achieve success on a similar scale. And of course, RPGs continue to dominate the world of video games, expanding their audience into billions, far beyond the scope of any single novel.

The size of the industry is irrelevant to hobbyists. Amazon rankings are sneered at when any other topic is being discussed. (Hint: Sad Puppies.) Kickstarter has had a largely negative impact on the scene. And computerized RPGs are so different from their pen and paper forbears, they really have nothing much to do with them. But yes. These two paragraphs will succeed in making these games sound relevant to a large group of people that don’t actually care about them.

Can the novel itself learn a few lessons from RPGs? The ergodic reading experience broke into the literary mainstream with Mark Z Danielski’s House of Leaves. But the novel remains stubbornly attached to traditional narrative structure. For all their pop culture aesthetic and emphasis on escapism, in these days of the mega-novel innovative reading experiences are to be found in the mysterious worlds of the RPG.

No. Failed gamers can be really great failures at writing, too. But when it comes to games, the play’s the thing. And what is it with your insinuation that the “novel remains stubbornly attached to traditional narrative structure”? I mean, just because you want to try something different it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with all the books that people are enjoying and reading and discussing right now.

But really, it’s hard to get more pathetic than the idea that a non-existent literature exists in a pile of games you don’t play. Seriously, though, it’s a shame that you couldn’t take bandwidth you’ve used here to talk about all the great times you’ve had running “Swords Without Master”. That actually could have been useful to people. But thank you for once again demonstrating that if people read about RPGs in a major newspaper, they will read people who know nothing about them talk about things that have nothing to do with them to people that don’t really care.

10 responses to “Responding to “The joy of reading role-playing games”

  1. MishaBurnett June 27, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    My ex used to read cookbooks a lot. She did almost no cooking–I did that for our family–but she loved to buy new cookbooks and page through them, daydreaming. Sometimes she’d even go so far as to pick up ingredients from the store, which I would eventually have to either figure out a way to use before they spoiled or just throw out.

    That’s what this article made me think of.

    • Cirsova June 29, 2015 at 8:11 am

      Y’know, I think that a case can be made (it really wasn’t made here) for modules as a form of fiction. Then again, one of the things that killed 2e was modules like Die, Vecna, Die!, which were clearly meant to be read and not played.

      I enjoy reading modules, and there are a lot of modules that fuel the imagination, but I can’t really think of any that I’ve read and thought “That was a great read!” without also the burning desire to actually run it.

      Much more worrying was the article that was two clicks off of this one that insinuated that only Game of Thrones & Wheel of Time-style brick fantasy has the necessary volume of page space to accomplish true fantasy world building.

      • BobtheCertifiedIdiot June 29, 2015 at 4:42 pm

        That Guardian writer has a reputation. He has very strong opinions on correctfun and correctthought. I first heard of him when he was denouncing commercially successful writers of many novels, while he was taking a government grant to write a novel and not delivering. (Or he hadn’t delivered, last I heard.)

      • Cirsova June 29, 2015 at 4:55 pm

        A big a tool as Damien Walter is I’m far more likely to share his sentiment that “Fantasy Must Shake Off the Tyranny of the Mega-Novel” than Natasha Pulley’s ludicrous claim that “Fantasy Cannot Build its Imaginary Worlds in Short Fiction.”

        How like the Guardian, though, to be right only half the time and even then for the wrong reasons, eh?

      • BobtheCertifiedIdiot June 29, 2015 at 10:54 pm

        I don’t really care about length, if the execution is enough and to my taste. Okay, I generally want to read more. Okay, I thought Naruto had a solid ending and an appropriate length, and often enough have trouble getting into anthologies. A good short can have tremendous power.

  2. jlv61560 June 28, 2015 at 3:12 am

    I cannot imagine a better example of what passes for “intellectualism” in today’s America. I couldn’t get that old saw about “a celibate monk writing a sex manual” out of my head as I read this guy’s blatherings.

    He needs to get out more, maybe try actually DOING something instead of just talking about it.

  3. Twila Price June 29, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    I dunno. Since my last gaming group imploded (due to scheduling and one player’s diagnosis of cancer), I get my gaming jollies by reading gamebooks. They are fun reads, particularly if you try to work out how the world would work with all of the bits and pieces that the game’s designers didn’t think were important enough to detail filled in. It’s not the same, but it sometimes is more fun. :-)

    • BobtheCertifiedIdiot June 29, 2015 at 10:54 pm

      As someone who sometimes enjoys reading game books, and who is too much of an anti-social loner to actually play with anyone, I think DW at the Guardian is full of it. Jeffro’s, Misha’s, and jlv61560’s analyses seem to agree with my own and with what I’ve heard of DW.

      Schlock Mercenary RPG, at this point, is successful because of the comic’s fans, and Taylor’s credibility with them. Whether it stinks or not has yet to be determined. It is not necessarily representative. (I’ve seen some pretty off kickstarters mentioned on Tenkar’s.)

      I’ve put more effort into putting into words exactly what seems wrong to me about the definitions of art in the article than it is worth. 1) The whole system has to be put into practice to be measured as a whole. 2) Bits and pieces may succeed or fail on their own merits, but there is nothing particularly challenging about accessing quality or fun. 3) Art doesn’t need fancy words, or someone else’s taste.

      It wasn’t until I started attempting to reinvent the CRPG wheel using OSR stuff that I paid real attention to the combat rules.

    • jlv61560 June 29, 2015 at 11:22 pm

      There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading gamebooks and modules for fun. We all do it. Sometimes we’re looking for ideas, sometimes we are planning to run it, sometimes we just want a little escapism, sometimes they’re just great fun to read. in that sense, they exercise our minds. I too went through a huge gap on actually playing since I was constantly moving and just never had the time to set up an RPG group. And I entertained myself for literally years by reading RPG supplements and modules instead of playing them (though I continued to play wargames throughout that period). But not one of us has ever tried to to ‘splain our culture by describing how we DIDN’T do anything as part of our culture! Nor do we claim to be “experts” on something we’ve never actually accomplished or even attempted. Actually “doing” something always gives you perspective on what you read about the thing you did. That’s how you CAN fill in all those other details the author skipped over for various reasons. I’ve never played ice hockey. But I don’t think I can coach an ice hockey team either. Thinking you have something profound to say about something you actually know nothing about is more indicative of the author’s sheer egotism and arrogance than it is of any deep thought or understanding on his part. Unfortunately, that attitude seems all too prevalent in what passes for “academia” these days. This is not intended as an attack on YOU. You brought up a very good point that made me think about this more is all, so I “responded” to you, and I also want to thank you for your thoughtful input.

  4. Grant Sultzer January 3, 2020 at 2:32 am

    I think I’m just gonna update this post actuallyLikeLike

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