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The Fine Art of Role-Playing

Part 7: Roleplaying as Ritual

by Jonathan Walton
Apr 22,2004


The Fine Art of Roleplaying
A Column by Jonathan Walton

Part 7: Roleplaying as Ritual

So it's been a few weeks since my last article. First, the Art as Performance book that I was planning to discuss turned out to be less interesting than we originally thought. Then, Spring Break happened and I decided to take that week off, since life had been crazy busy. But now I'm back and we're going to discuss an article that was actually written about roleplaying, Chris Lehrich's Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games. [1]

Now, Chris is a friend of mine in the "internet associate" sense. We bump into each other on The Forge [2] and are planning to co-edit an anthology on contemporary roleplaying. [3] However, I selected his article on ritual in roleplaying because it's thought provoking and related to the stuff we've been talking about. If you're planning to skip off and read it yourself (which I would definitely recommend), I'd caution that certain sections of it are denser and more academic than most casual readers are used to. You're not going to be able to breeze through it quickly, but if you take time to read it through, the reward is great. That said, I'm going to try to distill many of his key points here, to provide grounds for discussion.

Chris opens the article by suggesting that he's not putting forth yet another comparison. Instead of talking about how roleplaying and ritual are similar in a variety of ways, his aim is something different:

      I do not wish to add another analogy to the lists. I do not mean that RPG play is like ritual at all; I mean that it is ritual. Therefore classical and recent tools of ritual analysis apply fully to RPG's, for analytical purposes, for making sense of RPG's as something other than an entirely isolated hobby, indeed for seeing RPG's as a human cultural product not particularly distinctive to modern society. If to some this seems a claim that RPG's are not special and extraordinary, I suggest on the contrary that this grants to RPG's a legitimacy and "specialness" attendant upon their roots in wider humanity and culture.

      -- Chris Lehrich [4]

Chris' evidence for claiming that RPGs are a form of ritual is pretty strong. You need to be trained to perform a ritual properly, in the same way that newcomers are taught the rules and guidelines of any roleplaying group. Also, roleplaying involves a shifting and changeable set of techniques built around a central core that defines the basic practice, which has an exact parallel to ritual. Whether it's in English or Latin, the basic idea of a Mass doesn't change. Likewise, the way you roll dice or gain the authority to narrate occurrences can change, while the basic structures of the game stay the same. Finally, the idea of a separate "sacred space" in which ritual actions occur parallels the traditional division between in-game and out-of-game actions in roleplaying.

I've decided that I really should have read Chris' article before I ever started this column. What he says in the above paragraph about roleplaying being ritual is very close to what I've been trying to say about roleplaying being art. Why do we bother making these kinds of claims? Well, 1) because it lets us draw on the huge body of work that's already been written about art or ritual, and 2) because it ties roleplaying in with other aspects of human culture. Sure, you could argue for roleplaying being just a type of game. What Chris and I are claiming, from our perspective viewpoints, is that roleplaying's status as art or ritual is non-exclusive and doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't a type of game too. "Art" and "ritual" are simply larger boxes within which we can put roleplaying, alongside other art forms or types of social rituals.

Putting roleplaying in larger boxes keeps us from having to reinvent the wheel when we talk about it. Why do people roleplay? How do you collaboratively create an experience that is fun for everyone? Do we really have to invent new terminology and ways of thinking to answer these questions? No. People have been wondering why we paint or pray or dance for thousands of years. Likewise, people have always wondered how to create experiences that everyone can enjoy. Some of the people doing that wondering were much smarter than any of us. Using their knowledge and insights as a foundation saves us a lot of effort and confusion.

But enough of the apologetics. Let's get on to the meat of Chris' article. After laying out the basics, he brings up Claude Lvi-Strauss, the famous cultural anthropologist, and his idea of bricolage, or building cultural practices by combining bits and pieces of existing ones.

      Lvi-Strauss's idea, in simple terms, is that cultures think like oddly artistic hobbyists. Imagine you have a basement full of stuff from which to build whatever you like. ...you have to build the thing you're going to build from what you already have in your basement. ...Lvi-Strauss's point is that each object used contains its own history: that is, the iron has already been used for something and [you] then [give] it a new use. ...[You build] the machine that solves the problem, in the process incorporating the entire history of every object in question, and further altering (however slightly) each object so used...

      -- Chris Lehrich [5]

What Chris reminds us here is that every technique you use already has existing connotations. If you borrow poker mechanics, that will influence the feel of your game. If you include guidelines for characters going insane, experienced players will immediately draw parallels to Call of Cthulhu, Unknown Armies, or other works in which similar techniques appear. The point is that everything has a meaning and a history, even when you might not expect it to. Additionally, your use of those techniques gives them new connotations, so when people you play with look at Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies, their experience of those games will be informed by what you've done.

If you've been following this column for a while, this may sound suspiciously similar to my comments on "postmodern art" in This is the Remix. [6] Artists (and, as Chris and Lvi-Strauss point out, creators of ritual) have always built new works based on tools, techniques, and ways of thinking that were given to them by their predecessors. There's nothing new under the sun, there are just new ways of using what's already here. One of the distinguishing characteristics of new media like rap/hip-hop and roleplaying is the transparency of such indebtedness. People usually don't pretend that they created samples, and no one is going to argue that they invented "roll under a target number" dice mechanics. There's a long history of board games and gambling that predates roleplaying by centuries, giving us piles of techniques to draw from. It's the open nature of this borrowing that is relatively new, at least in a culture that has traditionally been very protective of creator's rights.

To attempt to clarify the bricolage concept, let me suggest another analogy that I've been fond of recently: the relationship between actual play and the body of roleplaying knowledge available (in published works and just in people's heads) is very similar to the relationship between creative writing and literature. Reading literature can give you tools and guidance that will make you a better writer. The good stuff you can mimic and the bad stuff shows you what NOT to do. However, in the end, all you have is this basement full of stuff, this pile of rules, suggestions, illustrations, maps, and advice. YOU have to be the one to assemble it into a meaningful experience. You cobble the airplane together and hope that it will fly as smooth as a dream. Usually it doesn't, so you take it back to the shop and tweak it. However, you can't simply build anything out of anything else. There's definitely a structure of sorts, but one with a large degree of flexibility built in:

      The iron, to focus on the single example, is a local source of heat; in can burn pants or make a grilled-cheese sandwhich, and of course it can press a shirt. But it cannot be a refrigerator. ...Technically speaking, every sign is thus constrained and yet free. ...Thus the machine has a structure, requiring a number of elements, but the specifics of which objects or signs are used to fill those element-slots are open. What interests practice theorists is strategic choice: how do people decide whether to use an iron or a space heater?

      -- Chris Lehrich [7]

This sounds like every discussion of art or roleplaying design that I've ever participated in. How DO people decide whether to use an iron or a space heater, whether to lighten up the background of a painting or leave it the way it is, or whether to go with a GM-less game structure or not? It's clear that there is a nearly infinite number of ways to do any given task. What makes one choice better in a given situation than another? Chris doesn't go off on a tangent and provide a possible answer, but I will. I'd argue for two things: instinct and theory; one is virtually immediate, the other requires time and serious consideration. For example, when faced with making a choice, the artist can rely on their initial instincts: do they like irons or space-heaters better? What seems like the obvious choice? Another tactic would be to think things through, logically. What have other people done in the past? What were the results like? Are you trying to do something similar or different? Both kinds of choices are improved by experience. If you know that irons have a limited ability to create heat, your instincts might send you towards the space heater. If you have a great deal of experience with a variety of objects, your theories about them are more likely to be correct.

Additionally, while we're exploring things that weren't made explicit in Chris' article, there is one key point that the basement metaphor doesn't make clear. While we each have a basement full of stuff, we don't have the same stuff, so we can acquire things from other people's basements. But it's quite likely that we won't be as familiar with these borrowed items. This is especially true of things that have already been heavily modified by their original owners. We might not know what to make of a flashlight built from an old cattle prod, or how to incorporate it into our own inventions. Most likely, we'll have to try it out in many different ways, attaching it to various amalgams of stuff, until we get it to function effectively. We may even have to disassemble it, either to see what makes it tick or to use the original, unmodified cattle prod. I hope the metaphor isn't getting so thin that my point is lost.

How about a concrete example? Let's take a mechanic that was adopted and customized for use in a specific context, such as the task resolution rules in Nobilis. In Nobilis, each character has a 4 traits representing their overall effectiveness, which are rated numerically, 1-5. Let's just look at one of these traits, Aspect, which represents the physical and mental prowess of a character. Each player has a pool of "Aspect Miracle Points" that allow their character to perform tasks that would normally be impossible for them. A character with Aspect 3, for example, could perform any task that required Aspect 1, 2, or 3 ability, but couldn't normally perform tasks of higher difficulty. However, that character's player could spent 2 Miracle Points to allow their character to perform a task requiring Aspect 5 (Aspect 3 + 2 Miracle Points = Aspect 5). Basically, characters in Nobilis can do almost anything, as long as their players are willing to expend a limited resource, so the narrative emerges from the players negotiating and working out how much they care about having certain events occur.

However, say you wanted to incorporate this mechanic into your game. The creator of Nobilis, Rebecca Borgstrom, built this mechanic from a cattle prod and a light bulb, to use our metaphor. She created it with the tools and knowledge that she had in her repertoire. It would not be enough for us to simply adopt this idea whole, without making an effort to understand how it works and how best to use it. After all, we don't necessarily know that it's even a flashlight. Maybe it's an explosive device that causes the lightbulb to burst, throwing glass everywhere, when we turn on the cattle prod. Maybe it was constructed shoddily and doesn't actually work in practice. Until we fiddle around with it, take it apart, combine it with familiar things in our own basement, and maybe even try it out, we can't know for sure.

So what do we do? Well, we could think about it in terms of more familiar mechanics, such as trying to roll dice and get a result that's higher than the Difficulty, a number set by the Game Master. You see this kind of mechanic all the time. The player says, "I want to climb the tree." The GM says, "Okay, that's Difficulty 6. Roll a ten-sided die. If you get a 6 or above, you successfully climb it. If not, it's too difficult and you keep sliding down, no matter how hard you try." So we can compare this to Nobilis, where the GM, following set guidelines, determines a difficulty, saying that a specific task needs Aspect 2 or Aspect 7 or whatever. Then, instead of rolling dice to attempt it, the player simply decides if it's worth the cost in Miracle Points. Is more effectiveness now worth less potential effectiveness later?

What have we done here? We've taken Borgstrom's cattle-light apart. The traditional difficulty method is the lightbulb, which we're used to working with. Her emphasis on player choice and balancing resources is the more unusual cattle prod. We've heard of such things, but aren't as familiar with them. Basically, my whole point here is that products of bricolage (such as rituals and roleplaying) may not be immediately understandable to those unfamiliar with certain components or combinations, and require analysis on an individual level before they can be fully digested and utilized.

Shifting back to Chris' points, he also tries to address the traditional distinction between signs (individual bits and instances of roleplaying) and system (the structure at the core of the roleplaying experience):

      ...the "system does matter" principle argues that system elements are motivated signs, and thus contain structure; their transformation affects the totality of the structure. ...however, we must recognize that the difference is not absolute; furthermore, the distinction drawn is ideological, not "factual." There can be no question, for example, that the use of the vernacular in Catholic Mass has significantly changed the way in which Catholics experience the ritual; indeed, were this not so, there would have been no reason to make the change in the first place. ...In short, it is unclear how one is to classify elements into arbitrary and motivated, into those which can be shifted without large-scale structural effects and those which cannot. ...the understanding is in both cases ideological, intended not only to classify and analyze the ritual in question but also to emphasize and push for improvement in the activity, thus making normative claims about what the ritual should be about.

      -- Chris Lehrich [8]

Hopefully you followed all of that. Chris' general claim is that it's very difficult to tell what aspects of roleplaying can be changed without affecting a given individual's play experience. After all, this would really depend on what aspects of play the individual focused on. If they really enjoyed detailed combat, where the characters maneuvered around each other and strategize, they would consider very different components to be critical than if they were just interested in the outcome of the fight and what this meant for the characters' relationships. Chris seems to be arguing then, for a less clear distinction between sigh and system, or at least a relative one that takes into account what different people are basing their experiences on.

Secondarily, he's making a statement on the ideological debate that continues to occur between advocates of "system doesn't matter" (represented by "universal" and "rules-lite" systems such as GURPS, Fudge, & The Pool, as well as by the expansion of d20 games into other genres) and "system does matter" (most notably, Ron Edwards [9] and many other indie and progressive designers). While I don't want to simplify this complex debate into "Fudge vs. The Forge," Chris is suggesting it ultimately emerges from a disagreement over the relative importance of system and signs. A system like Fudge seeks to minimize its game impact as much as possible, resolving disagreements quickly and easily without adding any flavor of its own into things. All the emphasis is placed on what happens, not how we determined what happens, and players are encouraged to ignore any system elements that creep in. Advocates of "system does matter," on the other hand, point out that the system is bound to creep into any game, and claim that this is an opportunity, instead of something to be ignored. Systems can be created that actually reinforce the play experience simply by the ways in which they are executed, and can even become the methods through which signs (instances of play) are collaboratively created.

To analyze this breakdown a little further, Chris' thoughts suggest that the system/sign divide is really one between the players and the game designer. After all, actual play is ultimately something that emerges among a player group, something that the game designer has relatively little control over. Games like Fudge embrace this wholeheartedly. Make stuff up, they say. Improvise like a madman! If the system doesn't suit you, change it completely! We don't mind! Advocates of a different opinion might suggest that this is simply bad design. Instead of creating mechanics that do what they're supposed to do, you throw a few ideas out there and expect people to adapt them into something that works (which, they would suggest, isn't as easy as others make it out to be, often resulting in unsatisfying play). Instead of putting all the responsibility on individual players and Game Masters, advocates of "system does matter" put more of it on the game designer, who's supposed to work out all the kinks and get things running smoothly before publishing their game.

It should be noted that Chris' ultimate conclusion is that neither of these sides can claim to be "correct," since the distinction is totally ideological. Is it better to more on the players or the game designer? Who knows? Both approaches have immense difficulties to surmount. Any game, to one extent or another, relies on both, so it's mainly a question of focus and how much trust you have in either party. The players, especially if roleplaying in unfamiliar territory, are bound to "screw things up," resorting to techniques and approaches that don't fit the game being played, leading to unsatisfying results. Likewise, the game designer might not create something that works very well or be able to communicate their vision and methods in a way the players can understand it. A focus on players or game designer, then, is simply an argument for one possible approach. It's unsurprising, I think, that "system does matter," with its focus on the designer, is rather popular at The Forge, a haven for indie game designers. Likewise, Fudge has lately been a hit among people running games by email or chat, since it's basically a step up from the kind of freeform (i.e. totally player-dependent) roleplaying that has existed since the beginning of the internet.

There's many more issues addressed in the remaining sections of Chris' article, one which I can't sufficiently address here, but I wanted to discuss the "unique" collaborative nature of roleplaying before moving on:

      ...the prior structure is to a degree open to challenge within game play, and furthermore does not constrain particular game actions, determining a range and a set of priorities rather than laying out a script. As has been recognized for some decades now, the same can be said of the most formal ritual: within apparent constraint there is scope for contestation, not only of the various issues and questions related to a particular ritual's situation within the social context, but also of the ritual itself with all its symbols.

      -- Chris Lehrich [10]

Many people (including myself, honestly) have long upheld the collaborative creative process as one of roleplaying's more unique features, where players can challenge the game structure from within the process of playing, make adjustments, and continue playing, hopefully with the play experience improved as a result of the changes or the issues discussed. Chris' comments, however, question whether this is actually a property of roleplaying or simply a built-in component of any social ritual, including roleplaying. If, when they bring you the Communion chalice, you spit into it, you're clearly questioning the value and premise of the ritual itself, but you're using ritualized, symbolic behavior to do so. Spitting into the chalice carries a huge social meaning, but that meaning is only significant because it is exaggerated by the importance of the ritual itself. You are using the language of ritual to condemn the ritual, collaboratively creating a new meaning, even if the meaning is antagonistic to what the supporters of the rituals want.

The same holds true for roleplaying. When people challenge other players' actions in the game, they almost inevitably point to established play guidelines, or "common sense" about roleplaying, or some other game-based justification to support their complaint. This is the tactic of so-called "rules-lawyers" who use their in-depth knowledge of the rules to assert their own superiority and control of the "ritual" of roleplaying, often in opposition to a Game Master or another authority figure. Of course, this also applies in situations where you're trying to enact change for less selfish reasons. For instance, if you notice that several of the players seem to be uncomfortable with certain aspects of play or are looking for something that's not being provided, it's possible to push the game in certain directions, having your characters retreat from a combat heavy situation, for instance, and focusing on inter-character relationships. Similarly, if things are getting boring and you want the pace to pick up, you could have your character pick a fight or get involved in some sort of heated argument.

Of course, this ability to challenge and push the form of the ritual can be used for both selfish and selfless reasons, making the game more like what you want it to be or more like what others or the group as a whole wants. Finding a balance is part of learning to be a good player and learning to play well with others. This is a skill that, too often, people fail to develop, either focusing completely on what they want out of a roleplaying experience or totally making their own desires secondary, fully buying into whatever the rest of the group wants (which, in many ways, invalidates the collaborative process, since others aren't getting the opportunity to adapt to you, which would stretch them in different creative directions).

What's Next?

Next time, we're going to be looking at a few articles from the recent book on roleplaying theory, Beyond Role and Play, conceived and edited by a group of international theorists for Scandinavia's biggest roleplaying convention. After that, I'm planning to examine some more traditional art theory articles on improvisation and collaboration in dance.

Until then, I'll see you in the forums.

[1] Chris Lehrich http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/ritual_discourse_in_RPGs.html
[2] The Forge is an online forum devoted to indie roleplaying games, theory, and design (http://www.indie-rpgs.com).
[3] The project is still in the planning stage, but a basic webpage is up (http://1001.indie-rpgs.com/handbook/).
[4] Lehrich, "Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games."
[5] Lehrich, "Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games."
[6] Walton, http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/columns/fineart23jan04.html
[7] Lehrich, "Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games."
[8] Lehrich, "Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games."
[9] Ron Edwards, "System Does Matter." http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/system_does_matter.html
[10] Lehrich, "Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games."
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