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The Fine Art of Role-Playing

Part 2: This is the Remix

by Jonathan Walton
Jan 23,2004

 

The Fine Art of Roleplaying
A Column by Jonathan Walton


Part 2: This is the Remix

So, last time I said we were going to talk about rap music, and that's mostly true. The focus of this week's column is really "roleplaying as a post-modern art form" and, since rap music is a good example of a post-modern art form, we're going to be comparing them and seeing what memes they have in common.

Before we do that, however, there are a couple of other issues I want to bring up briefly, which will make the later stuff clearer...

The Great Divide: System vs. Actual Play

      The major difference between roleplaying and other types of entertainment is this: Most entertainment is passive. The audience just sits and watches, without taking part in the creative process. But in roleplaying, the "audience" joins in the creation. ...And if they want something to happen in the story, they make it happen, because they're in the story. So, while other types of media are mass-produced to please the widest possible audience, each roleplaying adventure is an individual gem, crafted by the people who take part in it.

      -- GURPS Basic Set, 3rd Ed (Steve Jackson, 1992)

Roleplaying, being a performance-based art form (along with music, theater, & dance), has two levels of artistic creation, two levels of art, basically. The first is the guidelines for how the roleplaying is to be done, the equivalent of a musical score, theatrical script, or the predetermined movements of a dance performance. When you go to a store and a buy a roleplaying game, you are getting one kind of aesthetic object, a book which contains a set of rules geared towards a specific type of roleplaying: conspiracy theory stories, for instance, or heroic myths.

Reading this book will provide one kind of aesthetic experience. You could enjoy the interesting setting, characters, and themes the book suggests, as well as the elegance, simplicity, extensiveness, or insightfulness of the rules it puts forward. But reading the book, just like looking at a musical score, does not provide the full aesthetic experience intended by the author, which can only come through performance. However, while roleplaying is like music, theater, and dance in this aspect, there are other aspects of the medium, as it is commonly practiced, that distinguish it from related art forms and provides a unique challenge to theorists.

Where roleplaying differs from other performing arts (as indicated in the quote above) is in the private and participatory nature of its works. Roleplaying is rarely, if ever, performed in front of a non-participating audience. Everyone who observes a work of roleplaying is expected to be a participant. After all, theatergoers have a very different aesthetic experience from that of the actors, directors, and stage crew. Roleplaying celebrates being a participant in story making, not just a passive observer. Participation and artistic creation is essential to the aesthetic experience of the form.

Out of the Box

      You pick the stats, you pick the skills, you decide if you will run the game based on opposed rolls, set difficulty values, or a combination of the two. Total freedom and total control -- what more could any Gamemaster want?

      -- Scott Holden, as quoted in Fudge Expanded Ed. (Grey Ghost, 2000)

Not only does roleplaying encourage participation in the performance of works, it also promotes participation in all levels of game design, from choosing general play guidelines to creating the central characters for the narrative. Commercial roleplaying games (formalized rule sets for imagining stories in a particular genre or setting) can't be played like board games, where you open the box, read the rules aloud, and can immediately begin playing. Instead, the participants must work together to assemble the suggestions given into a working experience.

They will likely be given guidelines on how to create imaginary protagonists for their story, how the protagonists are to be manipulated (often with each participant taking on the role of a single protagonist), how to resolve disagreements about what should happen, who has narrative control, and the like. But the group has the responsibility of bringing everything to life. Additionally, the "Golden Rule" of roleplaying is that the group should feel free to alter or ignore any rules that they don't like. his means that game designers can't even expect that their roleplaying works will be attempted as written, since groups are likely to modify them right from the start, to suit their own needs.

However, the freedom to modify existing rule sets and play guidelines has a strong influence on game design as well. Artists working to create roleplaying games are likely to borrow rules, bits of setting, themes, and other game components whole cloth, without much modification to hide their origins. In fact, US copyright law (at least, so I've been told) makes it very difficult to copyright individual rules, instead focusing more on product identity (name, format, packaging, and such). This theoretically means that game designers are mostly free to do this, without fear of legal retribution, even from the larger roleplaying publishers (however, anyone with enough money can contest almost anything, so be warned). Interestingly, this means that you can trace roleplaying's development by following particular rules, which develop in one work and are quickly adopted by many others. There seem to be large trends in the kinds of play guidelines suggested, with some rising to popularity at certain points in time, before quickly falling away in the face of newer innovations. Therefore, it's extremely difficult to figure out how original and innovative any given work is, since its roots can doubtlessly be traced back to other games. Again, this same situation could be said to exist in other art forms as well, but roleplaying makes it more obvious.

Finally, unlike music, theater, and dance, roleplaying performances are never recorded and they are not reproducible, even in the approximate way that theatrical productions are. Each roleplaying session is a completely unique experience. No matter if you play with the exact same people, the exact same guidelines, and the exact same situations, it will still turn out completely differently. If you weren't a participant, you'll never get to experience it.

A Post-Modern Art Form

      ...certain themes and stylistic features are widely recognized as characteristically postmodern... These characteristics include: recycling appropriation rather than unique originative creation, the eclectic mixing of styles, the enthusiastic embracing of the new technology and mass culture, the challenging of modernist notions of aesthetic autonomy and artistic purity, and emphasis on the localized and temporal rather than the putatively universal and eternal.

      -- Richard Shusterman, "The Fine Art of Rap" (New Literary History 22, 1991)

Shusterman's list of postmodern qualities almost reads as a description of roleplaying's unique features, signaling that roleplaying is not alone in its embrace of certain postmodern memes. Interestingly enough, both roleplaying and rap came into existence at approximately the same time, the early 70's, and grew from an underground cult following to relatively mainstream status. Both forms of artistic expression have been widely misunderstood and reviled by the media and, despite this fact, managed to survive pretty well. Why have they been victimized by modern media? Perhaps because their very postmodern nature is a challenge to modern ideals that must be defended against, though obviously there are other reasons as well (in rap's case, often related to its roots in urban African-American culture).

"Recycled appropriation" and the "mixing of styles" are a key component of the culture of roleplaying. Nothing is owned. Intellectual property is a respected idea, and few roleplayers would intentionally exploit another's work in harmful ways, but it is also open season on good ideas. In fact, the roleplaying community is less like an archipelago, where isolated clumps of related ideas form groups, then it is like a teeming sea, where anyone is free to assemble their own aesthetic experience, drawing on material from any number of published and unpublished sources, mixing in their own preferences, and trying to create a cohesive experience from the result. A while ago, I planned to write a game design column for RPGnet called "This is the Remix!" for exactly this reason: both rap and roleplaying support a culture of appropriation and loose control. They live and breathe the same memes as the Industrial Revolution, improve on something, and then make it public, so others can improve on it further.

The challenging of traditional aesthetic values is also ubiquitous in roleplaying. The ephemeral nature of the experience, the fact that it's performed privately and without hope of real recognition, the lack of artistic purity or even the recognition that art is being created, the way that every experience is dependent on whim of the individuals involved, the improvisational character of play, and other traits all seem alien to a modernist understanding of what art is supposed to be. We have no record of the greatest works of roleplaying ever created. They exist only in the memories of those who took part in them. We can't even identify them, because there is no way to compare various aesthetic experiences that we did not personally participate in.

Additionally, just because a roleplaying game is well written, that is no guarantee that the play that results from it will be good or even enjoyable at all. Great game structures can be mismanaged by the participants and horrid game structures can yield great experiences, just depending on the participants and what how they use the tools that are available. This is subjectiveness to a degree that even art theorists would likely be uncomfortable with.

As for the embracing of new technology, few art forms have jumped at this chance like roleplaying has. As soon as computer programs reached a certain degree of complexity, the roleplaying community (a large section of which is employed in Information Technology) jumped at using them to further its artistic goals. Currently, there is a whole genre of computer games known as "roleplaying games" or "RPGs," many of which are only vaguely connected to the original art form, thanks to early efforts in this area. Once the internet appeared, roleplaying found its true playground. A place where people can use assumed identities in their interactions with each other? Sounds like a perfect match.

Roleplaying based chat groups, mailing lists, bulletin boards, and other communication tools proliferated. New styles of roleplaying developed, including "Play-By-eMail" (PBeM), which is growing to replace older play-by-mail strategy games. Every gaming company quickly saw the benefit of getting a website. Online game sales instantly became a huge portion of the market, subverting traditional distribution networks. Recently, roleplaying has even embraced the e-book phenomenon, way ahead of mass culture. Roleplaying suggestions and settings are sold in PDF format, to be downloaded to your computer, without any physical object every exchanging hands.


What's Next?

So, roleplaying is a post-modern art form. What does that tell us? Well, it means that, in many ways, roleplaying is on the cutting edge of the development of new artistic media. Because of this, many traditional ways of thinking about art don't really work when talking about an ephemeral experience collaboratively created by a group of individuals, in the same ways that Plato or Artistotle wouldn't really know what to make of Performance Art. Analyzing roleplaying then, often requires new aesthetic theories that are only beginning to be developed, and each of us can be a part of that, creating a greater understanding of what it is we are doing.

In that spirit, next time we're going to begin tackling... Feminism & issues of gender, which is often a sore and controversial aspect our community, dominated as it is by white, middleclass males.

See ya then.
Jonathan

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