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Original, but long

I was flipping through my university's weekly student newspaper, when to my astonishment I saw a link to the Gaming Philosopher in an article about blogs by people who study or work at Leiden University. You can read it here.

Translation:

Reflections on roleplaying games, philosophy and (fantasy-)literature. For instance the question: are roleplaying games a form of art? Original stuff, but the articles are somewhat long for internet.

I guess it is true that the articles are too long for internet, but I consider that to be internet's problem, not mine. ;)

[Fantasy] The Storyteller and Mrs. Brown

Today, I wish to investigate a connection between Benjamin's Der Erzähler and Ursula K. Le Guin's Science Fiction and Mrs Brown. (The latter essay can be found, like From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in her non-fiction collection The Language of the Night.) One of the theme's in Benjamin's essay is the difference between the story and the novel; the theme of Le Guin's essay is the possibility of SF (and fantasy) novels. Together, they may get us a bit closer to an answer to the question: what is the relation of the novel, and of the story, to fantasy?


Le Guin quotes Virginia Woolf, who is musing upon her meeting an old lady ("mrs. Brown") in the train:

I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character - not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and un…

Classes vs. Archetypes

A short observation.

What makes virtually every fantasy roleplaying game have a feel so unlike fairy tales, is that roleplaying games mainly relied on classes, whereas fairy tales rely on archetypes.

A character's archetype defines his place in the narrative; most importantly, his relation towards other characters. The handsome prince, for example, is (1) the object of desire for the maid, (2) the bane of the dragon, (3) the intended victim of betrayal by his younger brother; and so forth. How he will defeat the dragon, thwart his brother and marry the maid - whether by force, intellect or guile - remains an open question until the tale is told.

A character's class, on the other hand, defines his capabilities and dominant mode of action. The fighter is good with weapons; will attempt to defeat the dragon and the brother by chopping them into little bits; and will show off his biceps in orhter to woo the maid. What he will do, and what relations the other characters have to him re…

Elitism, and RPGs as Art

I have been planning to respond to John McLintock's Roleplaying as art? Not for me for a long time, and I'm finally getting round to it. McLintock's post infuriated me when I first read it - not because I get angry at people who think that roleplaying is not an art, but because of its rhetorical use of the word 'elitist', and its attempt to discredit art.

Let me make an important point right here at the start: the question whether RPGs are art is meaningless, just as meaningless as the question whether painting is art. Is there a hidden essence of RPGs or of painting, that may turn out to be 'art' or to be something else? Of course not. Rather, we can paint with many different goals; and we can look at paintings with many different 'eyes'. We can paint for fun, and judge the painting by how much fun we had making it. We can paint to express our hidden trauma's, and have our psycho-analyst look at the painting as a symptom the meaning of which has…

Walter Benjamin, "Der Erzähler" (The Storyteller)

In the comments to my last post, Ian mentioned an essay by Walter Benjamin, Der Erzähler (The Storyteller). Benjamin was an important German philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century; he wrote on a wide range of topics, but his best-known work is probably his essay Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (it is widely cited as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility would have been a better translation).

Der Erzähler is a very rich and complex essay. It claims to be a reflection on the work of Nikolai Lesskow (in English known as Leskov, I believe); but it also touches on the difference beween a story (in the sense that a storyteller tells stories; Erzählung, not Geschichte) and a novel, on the communicability of experience, on the role of death in modern life, on the nature of wisdom, on the relation between man and nature, and on several other topics. All that in t…

[Fantasy] Elfland, Poughkeepsie, Hogwarts and the Game of Houses

This post is not about roleplaying or interactive fiction, but about fantasy literature. I suspect that there will be more posts like that in the future, so my apologies if you do not care for the subject. The [Fantasy]-tag will help you recognise and avoid them.


I am currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin's From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in which she discusses writing styles appropriate to fantasy. But more interesting than her comments on style (which, though true, are not especially insightful) is the framework of her discussion; the insight in fantasy that allows her to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate styles.

Her metaphor is that of a big national park, which people should go to in order to experience something they normally do not (wilderness, nature), but which some people do go to "in a trailer with a motorbike on the back and a motorboat on top and a butane stove, five aluminium folding chairs, and a transistor radio on the inside. They arrive in a totally…

Sexism in the Realms

Being ill, I wanted to read an easy book this weekend. I chose R. A. Salvatore's The Dark Elf Trilogy, a set of Forgotten Realms novels describing the youth of that well-known D&D character, the good drow Drizzt Do'Urden. They were pretty bad, of course, but just the kind of light entertainment I was looking for. Except...

There has been some discussion of sexism in roleplaying games on the internet, among which John Kim's interesting and shocking Gender Roles in RPG Texts. Although Salvatore's books are not roleplaying games, the fact that they are official TSR-published novels set in one of the most popular roleplaying settings in history makes them relevant to this discussion. And boy, these books are so sexist that I couldn't believe what I was reading.

Not that Salvatore ever says anything like "women are inferior to men". I suspect that he is not even aware of his own sexism, and that - what is even worse - most of his readers never notice it. But…

IF Comp 2006

The annual Interactive Fiction comepetition has begun. You can download the games today, start playing and judge them. Your votes must be in by November the 15th.

The Ideology of Conflict

[This post is very long, but I consider it one of the most important ones I made in this blog. Perhaps the most important one.]


Introduction: The ubiquity of conflict

It is by now standard for a game in the tradition of the Forge to be about conflicts and their resolutions. Whether you play Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life with Master or The Shadow of Yesterday, the idea is that the GM and the player take opposite sides of a fictional conflict, then resolve it. In Polaris, the structure is no different: the Heart and the Mistaken have free play until they wish different things to happen, at which point challenge, conflict and resolution occur. Universalis is driven by the conflicting wishes of the players; 1001 Nights is about the players trying to be the one who realises his Ambition/Freedom first, in a setting where jealousy only exacerbates this conflict of interest; in Shooting the Moon the two Suitors are trying to get the prize and stop the other from getting it.

But really…

Conflict and Task Resolution

I am going to write a post called The Ideology of Conflict, and planned this discussion of conflict resolution and task resolution as an aside in it. But I believe its length warrants making a special post out of it, so here you are. The thesis I will defend is this: Conflict Resolution and Task Resolution are useless as analytic terms.

I suggest you take a few minutes to reread Vincent Baker's old post on these two types of resolution. A small quote:
Which is important to the resolution rules: opening the safe, or getting the dirt? That's how you tell whether it's task resolution or conflict resolution.Task resolution is succeed/fail. Conflict resolution is win/lose. You can succeed but lose, fail but win.
The distinction between CR and TR has been important, historically, because it made people rethink the way roleplaying games worked. But we are now in a position to see clearly that CR and TR are, in fact, identical. There is no difference between the two. As analytic …

Shock:, gender, and "What was sie thinking?"

I am currently reading Shock: social science fiction, by Joshua Newman. I quote the book:

Shock: uses genderless personal pronouns when the gender of a person - a character or a player - is unknown or irrelevant. In these cases, Shock: doesn't use "he", "his", "him", "himself", "she", "her", "herself" or "hers", using the pronouns favored by many contemporary gender theorists: "sie" "hir" "hirself", and "hirs". If this makes you uncomfortable, that's what a Shock is. If they don't, you'll feel right at home playing.It doesn't make me uncomfortable, but it does make for uncomfortable reading. Let's leave aside the question whether these gender neutral pronouns serve any worthy puprose, either in this game text or in general. What I want to say is something concerning this contemporary gender theorist: What on earth was sie thinking when sie deci…

Yes... but does this Gamist clockwork tick?

I do not know whether I read this somewhere or thought it up myself, but I consider The Shadow of Yesterday to be a Narrativist game containing a Gamist clockwork that makes it run. Consider: you have all these cool skills and secrets, and you want to get more and better ones. The way to do this is to get XP. The way to get XP is to hit and resolve your Keys. Hitting and resolving your Keys is almost guaranteed to generate a good thematic story. See? Never mind my liberal use of the GNS terms here.

Last week, I finished a satisfying game of The Shadow of Yesterday with Jasper Polane. During the six or so sessions of this game, I noticed the following phenomenon: in the first sessions I really wanted to increase my skills, and actively worked towards my Keys for that reason; but as the game progressed, my interest in getting Advances dwindled, and in the end I was only hitting the keys because that fitted into my story.

Although this doesn't really hurt the game, it nevertheless cann…

Full disclosure in RPGs and IF

In indie-RPGs, there has been a trend towards what I will call full disclosure. In traditional games, there is a knowledge asymmetry about the fictional world in that the GameMaster knows a lot more of what is going on and what is going to happen than the players do. In many recent games, the GM can be more open, or even completely open, about her knowledge; or her lack of knowledge. In InSpectres, for instance, I am always very sure to show my players how I roll an assignment on the assignment chart: this drives it home to them that I have nothing up my sleeve, and the the story is theirs as much as mine to tell. In Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM's first task is to make sure that the players get to know all of what's going on in the town: she first discloses everything, and then the fireworks start going off.

This mode of play has advantages as well as disadvantages, but it is surely advantageous as far as we are trying to make the players real co-authors of the story. It is obv…

[Shades] Lay-out

I was planning to give Shades a minimalist lay-out: perhaps just a picture on the front cover, and maybe only plain LaTeX-generated text on the inside. No bells, no whistles, just the content in an easily accessible form.

And then Jasper Polane has to screw it all up by telling me that I should lay-out the thing as a Victorian family album, where the actual play examples are yellowed photographs and handwritten memoirs. And he is so right. Alas, all the work this will mean...

[Stalin's Story] Rethinking the basics

Stalin's Story is a game I wrote for the Ronnies a while back, using the words "dragon" and "Soviet". Basically, it has two components: one component is an intricate, card-based storytelling game using Vladimir Propp's analysis of Russian fairy tales; the other is a social component allowing the players to explore the power relations of totalitarianism.

The result of grouping these two components together is something that is too complex. From now on, Stalin's Story will refer to the second, social component, without the intricate Proppian mechanics. How should this leaner Stalin's Story work?

First, it is of the essence that Stalin is chosen by chance, not by consent. When you start playing, everyone has the hope to be Stalin, but only one will be him. (Yes, this may remind the political philosophers among us of Rawls' Veil of Ignorance.) The person who is appointed Stalin, by dice or cards, should be obeyed by everyone; this text should definit…

[Shades] Surprise

Shades is a game for two or three players. I mean, it says so in the rules. And that is why I dimissed it as an option when Remko, Annette and Eva came over to my place last week.

Until I realised that those rules has been written by me, and that I had never tested the game with more than two players. So I thought "it's worth a try", and we played it with four. Now, the four of us are friends, in some cases very close friends; we played together many times before; and to a large extent we are on the same page when it comes to roleplaying. The circumstances, then, were optimal for a game of Shades - and lo and behold, to my surprise it went very well indeed.

(The tale turned out to be about a noble/rich family consisting of an elder, somewhat tyrannical brother; a younger, slightly mad brother; their sister, aged in between, vicious but insecure; and the sister's maid, who was also the lover of both brothers. Their struggles for power and love led them to cruelty, and f…

Improving us, the audience

In Musings and Mental Meanderings Thomas Robertson reminds us that games aren't the only texts that can impact play. We could also write texts about improving your gaming techniques, or write toolboxes that allow people to more or less put together their own game, and so forth. Some such books do exist; I believe you can buy books that tell you how to make a maximally effective fighter/wizard/whatever in D&D3E.

I can see the same happening in the indie scene: How to GM Dogs in the Vineyard, or Fear and Loathing: getting the most out of My Life with Master, or Twelve ways to structure Polaris. These books need not be tied to one single game, of course. Improve your description techniques, or or Ten simple games to build trustorthe best-selling Relationship Maps that Kick Ass all seem definite possibilities.


We will return, in a roundabout way, to the theme of roleplaying as a form of art.


We take a detour over Ron Edward's band-metaphor of roleplaying. Roleplaying, he wrote, …

A culture of criticism, part I

If we want roleplaying to become an important form of art, we must have Great Games. Therefore, we must build up a community that allows designers to shape themselves into Great Artists. One necessary element of such a community is a culture of criticism.

'Criticism', here, should be understood in both its popular senses. We need, firstly, a culture in which people honestly appraise the qualities of the games that are created, and honestly and realisticly judge the merits and demerits of these games. Right now, we do not have such a culture, as I will argue below.

We need, secondly, a culture in which there are RPG critics - in the sense that there are literary critics: people who can understand games and write thoughtful reviews about them. Not reviews of the kind that are published on RPGnet, with their simplistic point-based ratings; but the kind of reviews that assume you have already read and played the game, and now wish to understand it better. Reviews of this kind are wr…

The social structure of My Life with Master

In order to make it clearer what I was getting at with my previous post, I'll here repeat part of what I said in its comments. The question is: what can roleplaying games do that other forms of art cannot? The answer is: create or change a social relation mediated by images. The example is My Life with Master.


What seems to me unique in roleplaying games, is that they can create a real and new social situation, right there, between you and your fellow players; and they allow you to experiment with this situation. What is so cunning about My Life with Master is that the social relations it creates in the gaming group are an exact mirror of the fictional relations. Observe:

1. The GM needs the players, for without them there is no game and he has no power. The Master needs his minions, for without them he has no power.
2. The GM must bully the players - emotionally and, in fact, almost physically (see the Manifesto on Mastery). He, the actual person, must think up fictional tasks that …

Innovative, radical art

A roleplaying game is not a collection of images; it is a social relation mediated by a collection of images. As a radical form of art, roleplaying games cannot differentiate themselves from more mature forms of art like film and literature by making possible new kinds of images or new ways of collecting them; as a radical form of art, roleplaying games must seek their innovative potential in the social relations they create or change.

Polaris and Breaking the Ice well deserved their top places as Most Innovative Game in this year's indie game awards. But if there had been an award for Most Innovative Art, it should have gone to Bacchanal. That game is all about creating a social situation you simply don't get with any other RPG - or any book or movie, for that matter.

[Shades] Where Push is Pull

I was just rereading Shades (playtest rules) - which I hope to finish at least in rough form by the end of the year - and realised that at its core lies an interesting twist on Push and Pull mechanics. For the sake of clarity, I will link to Mo Turkington's final post on Push/Pull and repeat her definitions here:

Push is an assertion of individual authority.

Pull is a directed solicitation for collaborative buy-in and input.

Shades aims for a kind of narrative that we all know from our actual experience: two or more people were involved in a situation that turned ugly, but all of them remember it differently and - surprise, surprise - in such a way that they are mostly blameless. However, as they rethink what happened, they come around to see the other's points of view, realise the falsity of some of their own recollections, and perhaps may reconcile themselves.

Now that sounds less scary and art-pour-l'art-like than talk about unreliable narrators, doesn't it? But it is a…

Four types of psychological depth

With regard to the kind of indie RPG that is unsuited to long 'campaigns' - think of My Life with Master, The Mountain Witch or Polaris - I have often heard people say that this does not appeal to them, because they need several sessions in order to 'get into' their character, and thus long campaigns to fully enjoy roleplaying him or her. Every time I heard this, I thought of the cardboard characters I had played in my longest games and the powerful, deep characters I had played in short, narrativist indie games, and I dismissed these complaints. This was foolish. Instead, I should have wondered whether there are not different types of characterisation, different ways to give a character what I might call 'psychological depth'; and different playing styles and games that allow us to create this kind of depth.

I will now present four types of psychological depth. This typology is probably not perfect; it is almost certainly not complete. But perhaps it can serve …