Origin of role-playing games
Role-playing games originated as a variant form of war games. Since the turn of the century, hobbyists had been re-creating real battles, or inventing imaginary ones, by moving model soldiers about simulated battlefields. H. G. Wells wrote one of the first manuals for this hobby, Little Wars (published in 1913). In the early 1970s, a group of war gamers developed a set of rules for war games in a medieval setting, published as Chain Mail. What was distinctive about it was that it also provided rules for the effects of spell casters and magical creatures on a battle, for the war gamer who wanted to reenact, say, the Battle of Helm's Deep from The Lord of the Rings. And where war games conventionally used one model soldier to represent a squad of soldiers, at a ratio, say, of ten to one, Chain Mail provided rules for including individual heroic figures, such as wizards or epic warriors. The games that resulted from these ideas developed into the game of Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and Dragons was still mainly a war game, focused on combat. But because it focused on individual combatants, players began talking about what these figures were doing other than making combat moves. That is, they began telling stories. And the result was the role-playing game, where this story-telling is the medium in which the game is played. Dungeons and Dragons remains the best known of these, but dozens of others have been published, some in multiple editions, and many of these are in print today.
A role-playing game is a game played by narrating the actions and speaking the dialogue of imagined people in an imagined world. Originally, this was done by people sitting around a table moving model soldiers over a map, a form known as tabletop gaming. The same name is used for people who simply sit around a living room and talk with each other, without visual aids. If they get up, move about, and (usually) put on costumes, the activity is called live action gaming. If they play by exchanging written texts — usually, these days, via the Internet — they're engaged in online gaming. The name role-playing game has also been applied to games where one player interacts with a computer, taking the imagined role of an adventurer moving about a landscape; these computer role-playing games don't involve narrating or speaking dialogue to other players, and they aren't what this essay is about. Its main focus will be on "tabletop" games.
Playing a tabletop game requires narrating actions and speaking dialogue. But actions and dialogue are the substance of which fiction is made. At least in a trivial sense, playing a role-playing game requires creating a work of fiction.
It may be only a trivial sense. For a lot of players, the artistic elements are in the background; the foreground is interesting game play. They may spend a lot more time saying "I rolled a 20!" than describing how they feinted and thrust with their swords, or charmed the chambermaid into taking a note to the princess. But for other players, the artistic aspects are the big payoff. This essay is mainly about that sort of roleplaying, though it will also note aspects of narrative that are important even when game play is the main emphasis.
Even when played by artistically focused players, role-playing games don't have the literary workmanship of good prose fiction. At best, they're first drafts that will never be polished. This leads many people to claim that they can't be classified as art. I believe that that's mistaken on several grounds.
In the first place, it confuses a judgment of quality with a judgment of kind. Saying that something is art, or fiction, is saying what kind of thing it is, just as saying that a living organism is a human being or a potato is saying what kind of organism it is. A human being may have genetic defects that limit their functioning, prevent them from reproducing, or even kill them in infancy. But a child of a human mother whose intelligence is too limited for coherent speech is still a genetically handicapped human child, not a chimpanzee; children with no brain function used to be called "vegetables", but they were still human beings and not plants. A flawed or imperfect work of art, or even one that's outright bad, is still flawed or bad as a work of art.
In the second place, part of the lack of polish of role-playing games comes about because the narratives they generate are improvisational. In many arts, such as music, dance, or storytelling, it's possible to separate the roles of composer and performer; indeed, it may become standard, and we can distinguish between a composer and a musician, or a choreographer and a dancer. In fiction, it's mostly gone a step further: a novel has a composer, the novelist, but need not have a performer at all — the audience may be largely people who read the printed page, silently, as if music were addressed mainly to people who read the scores without listening to actual musicians, like Terry Pratchett's fictional Lord Vetinari, or like Beethoven after his hearing failed. But there are also improvisational forms, where the performer invents or reinvents the work anew at each performance, and these are still examples of the various arts. For example, ragas, the "high art" tradition in Indian music, actually require improvisation in most of the work. Fiction that's made up in the telling is still fiction.
And in the third place, some art is not merely improvisational but participatory. Think about a jazz band of half a century ago or more. They might play standard works on stage, in a club, probably with some improvised passages. But after hours, they might hold a jam session, where they played not for an audience, but for each other. And this was music, too. It probably lacked the polish of formally composed music, but it offered the audience something they wouldn't have at a formal concert: the ability to respond to a good performance by creating their own musical treatment of its theme. And one of the measures of excellence in a jam session performance is that it gives the other participants a springboard for their own improvisations. Rather than one person being the creator, and the others the audience, everyone is both creator and audience; the work of art is collaborative, with its theme being created by dialogue. In just the same way, I suggest, role-playing games can be described as participatory fiction.
Such fiction has all the elements of standard prose fiction, which is another reason for considering it an example of the art of fiction. But it manages some of them in different ways that print fiction composed by a single author. And their logical sequence in the standard role-playing game isn't the same. I'll discuss these elements in an order suited to this specific literary form.
The most basic element of a role-playing game is the same as the most basic element of a novel: its theme.
What is the theme of a work of fiction? This is one of the hardest literary concepts for most students to grasp. The novelist Ayn Rand says that a work's theme is its "abstract meaning", and Wikipedia offers a related but more detailed definition as "the meaning of the text on a deeper, more abstract level". But "meaning" implies an actual assertion, which would be expressed as a proposition. Rand, at least, in discussing literary themes (see The Art of Fiction, pp. 15–44), offers not sentences (which assert propositions) but noun phrases, such as "the role of the mind in man's existence" (for her own Atlas Shrugged), "the disappearance of the Southern way of life" (for Gone with the Wind), or "the evil of adultery and of the pursuit of happiness" (for Anna Karenina). These appear to fit better the definition in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: "a subject or topic of ... artistic representation".
But all of these are definitions more suited to the audience of a work than to its creator. And that makes them unsatisfactory for discussing role-playing games, where there usually is no passive audience at all. For the creator of a work, or its co-creators, the theme has a different significance. Rand defines art as "the selective re-creation of reality in accordance with the artist's metaphysical value judgments". (This is a definition better suited to mimetic than to expressive arts, but fiction is a mimetic art.) Any work of art has to be selective, including some things and omitting others. The theme is the principle of selection. It's the basic thing the work is about, which all its specific contents also need to be about, to make them all fit. Rand spells out "metaphysical value judgments" as meaning that the creator decides that some aspects of reality are interesting or important and deserve to be the focus on the artist's attention; a theme is one specific aspect that a creator has chosen to focus on in a specific work.
So, for example, in Joss Whedon's television series Firefly, the theme is the clash between two science-fictional futures: the semi-utopian, planned, hypercivilized future envisioned by writers such as H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, and the outer space frontier envisioned by writers such as E. E. Smith and Robert Heinlein. This contrast shows up in the portrayal of the characters; notably, Mal Reynolds is a citizen of the frontier, while his unconfessed romantic focus, Inara Serra, is from the hypercivilized central worlds. It shows up in the different settings. Even the starships can be divided into rough hewn private enterprise craft and smooth, polished, sophisticated government and corporate ships. And the underlying driving force of the storyline is a political conflict between the two futures. All the details of the various episodes are selected to bring out this contrast.
Most role-playing games, like television series, take a serial form, being divided into episodes with recurrent plots, even if there's a larger plot running through the entire series (or "campaign"). This theme is often very simple, even superficial. For example, a theme of many Dungeons and Dragons campaigns is the attainment of power and wealth through confrontations with danger in mysterious underground realms. This theme doesn't have any profound significance; it expresses nothing more than the players' sense of what makes a suitable framework for an exciting game. It's the role-playing equivalent of pure action/adventure fiction. But even so, it defines a specific type of action that the players will come to expect, and the game master can plan to present. A dungeon master who started confronting his players with exotically costumed criminals with superhuman powers would have to deal with confusion, if not outright rebellion. But in a different game using the same basic system of rules, Mutants and Masterminds, the theme of defending humanity against superhumanly powerful beings with no regard for human law or morality is standard, and most players would expect sessions to focus on such incidents.
More artistically focused games can have more distinctive themes. For example, a number of years ago, I ran a campaign set in an alternative version of Tolkien's Middle-Earth, where Sauron had captured the One Ring and conquered his foes. The theme was resistance to oppression through desperate measures. In the course of the campaign, I confronted the players with such altered characters as Galadriel still wielding an elven ring corrupted by Sauron, and driven half mad by unsleeping vigilance against his taking full control of it; a mentally enslaved Elrond lost in his own hallucinatory memories of ancient history; and Eowyn and Meriadoc leading Rohirrim refugees into the Shire just in time to save an uprising against their new masters from ending in slaughter. When looking for new subjects to present, I was able to ask how Sauron would have enslaved or corrupted a new part of Middle-Earth, from the recruitment of a Gondorian nobleman (the father of one of the player characters) as a replacement ringwraith to an attempt to breed hobbit/goblin hybrids in Buckland, directed by Sauron's agent Saruman. There wasn't any roleplaying game devoted to this type of situation when I started the campaign, but I was able to come up with suitable situations for the initial premise.
In my comment about Dungeons and Dragons, I mentioned the possible negative reactions of players to departure from a theme. This is an important feature of participatory fiction: because the "audience" are co-creators, they play a part in determining the theme. In fact, there's a kind of spectrum of possible campaigns. Nearly all campaigns have some element of theme-setting, where the game master chooses the focus of the campaign and requires the players to make choices consistent with that focus (for example, "create costumed superbeings who would fight crime according to the Comics Code of the 1960s" or "create crew members for an interstellar merchant ship trying to open new trade routes"). But nearly all campaigns have some element of theme-seeking, where the players determine the focus of the campaign by building characters who have certain goals, interests, or backgrounds (for example, when I ran a campaign set in a modern-day Faerie, the players chose to create characters who were students enrolled in a summer program for talented young musicians, and their musical performances became both a recurring focus for play and the key to the final plot resolution). Game masters can choose a very specific theme, or ask the players to choose one, or leave the players free to build characters they find interesting and work out a common theme that suits all of them — though this last method is the most difficult and the most likely to fail.
And, to the degree that the players are free to pursue one type of interest rather than another, the game master may not consciously realize the theme until many sessions of play have taken place. For example, when I ran a campaign set in the world of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, ten years later, during the reconstruction of the United States, one of the recurring story elements was violent episodes: from a guerrilla war of Illinois farmers against the gangster/bureaucrat régime in Chicago to a defense of the new Taggart Transcontinental bridge over the Mississippi against an invading army from Texas. After the campaign was over, I realized that, in fact, it had a philosophical theme: the role of war and violence in creating a free society. This wasn't one that I consciously chose during the campaign; rather, I chose incidents and situations that fit it because they felt right, and because they worked for the player characters. Had I consciously identified the theme, it could have helped me focus better on the essential storyline.
In novels and short stories, setting is often a secondary element: necessary, but created not for its own sake but to support the characters and the action; part of the background rather than the foreground. That's much less often true in role-playing games. Many of the best published role-playing games contain not only a system of rules, but a specific world, such as Glorantha in RuneQuest, Mythic Europe in Ars Magica, or Transhuman Space in the series of GURPS supplements with that title.
Partly, this is because many role-playing games are science fiction or fantasy. In the fantastic genres, many stories are set in exotic and unfamiliar worlds that are part of the attraction and that need to be revealed to the reader. In fact, these genres have developed an entire new literary technique of indirect exposition to do this, traceable to Rudyard Kipling's two early science fiction stories, "With the Night Mail" and "As Easy as A.B.C." In many fantastic works, the world is itself virtually an additional character, sometimes the most important character; one of the difficulties literary critics have with these genres is that the human characters (or characters of other races) often seem a bit flat, because their portrayal is less emphasized than portrayal of the world. And exploring invented worlds is an attraction of role-playing games as well; in some styles of gaming it's the most important attraction.
But there's another reason, which has to do with the nature of role-playing games as a literary form, and with the social relationship among their players. In most role-playing games, the players are not all equal. There's one principal player, called the game master, and the word "player" is reserved for the other players, who are secondary rather than primary creators. The players create the principal characters, but the game master creates the setting, all the minor characters, and often the adversarial characters.
And for this to work, much of the setting has to be defined before the player characters are created, so that the players can take it into account. Very superficially, a campaign set in a world of Tolkienian fantasy can have elves, dwarves, or hobbits as characters, but it can't have superheroes, robots, or United States marines. More subtly, the details of a setting can provide places for player characters to come from, occupations for their parents to have, family structures and social classes for them to have grown up in, schools or apprenticeships where they can have acquired their skills, gods for them to believe in or deny, and even foods for them to eat and clothing for them to wear. The more detail the game master can envision for a setting, the better a resource it is for the players.
Creating a setting starts out from the theme. The world where a campaign takes place has to be one where the type of events the campaign focuses on are possible and important. That is, their occurrence has to make a difference to the inhabitants of that world, or at least to those who are involved in the action of the campaign.
A first step, in many campaigns, is deciding on the natural laws of the world. This is especially important for campaigns in the fantastic genres, as so many are; if speculative scientific theories, or magic, or mythology are true, the world is going to have natural laws different from our world's, and the game master has to decide what those laws are. How does faster-than-light travel work, or telepathy, or magic, or the realm of dreams? But fiction in nonfantastic genres can also have a kind of different "natural laws". For example, in a campaign based on Atlas Shrugged, I decided that the only way to construct a plausible historical background was to assume that government-funded scientific research was inherently unproductive. This wasn't really true during World War II, but I decided to accept it as a dramatic stylization of reality reflecting Rand's basic ethical ideas. A campaign set in a world based on Hong Kong films might have "natural laws" allowing accomplished martial artists to do seemingly impossible feats such as defying gravity.
Next comes the overall geographic design of the world. What are the major countries, or planets? What continents do they occupy, or what solar systems? This is often addressed by drawing a map; but whether the game master uses a map or not, they need to know where important places are situated, and how far apart. This phase will also provide a list of places for player characters to come from. This stage of setting creation is especially important to alternate histories, where the game master assumes that some important historical event went differently, and asks what sort of world would grow out of it, and where the historical divergence is the world's only "fantastic" aspect.
Within this design, the player characters' home base or starting point is especially important. So are any locations they'll have to visit during their adventures: a dungeon complex, a starport, a master villain's headquarters. Even conventional realistic fiction very often includes invented places on this scale; its setting may be the real world plus a particular gin joint in Casablanca, or the real world plus an apartment on Baker Street.
In some campaign styles, the game master may also create a setting for the challenges the player characters will face. This is the basis for the "dungeon crawl" narratives of Dungeons and Dragons, for example. But in many styles, the game master will invent new challenges and new locations as the campaign goes on.
The final stage of setting creation depends on the nature of the player characters, and can only happen once they've been defined. So now we look at character creation.
The standard division of labor in a role-playing game is that the players create the central characters, and the game master creates the rest of the world, including the secondary characters. The player characters are roughly the equivalent of the viewpoint characters in a novel, or the star roles in a film or a television series. In general, they continue to appear throughout the campaign. In an older, more purely game-like approach, some game masters regularly ran sessions in which one or more player characters died; but now player character death is normally rare, and some game masters make a point of not allowing it to happen.
This division of labor and the collaborative nature of role-playing games mean that most games have several roughly equal protagonists — like a television series with an ensemble cast rather than a single star. This makes it difficult to translate many works of fiction into games. Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Conan, and James Bond are essentially solitary heroes, able to do everything on their own, or with incidental help on specific tasks. Q may have a scene where he explains the newest gadgets to Bond, or criticizes his choice of handguns, but he doesn't travel into the field with him. Adventure-oriented games need to focus on teams, such as the characters of the old Mission: Impossible or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Games focused on characterization and dialogue similarly need to trace the choices and relationships of several different people, not just of a single protagonist or a romantic couple.
Many games take this a step further: All the protagonists need to be equal in capabilities. This isn't something that can be determined exactly, though games such as GURPS and Champions have elaborate systems for assigning point costs to every trait a character could have. But the goal of such systems is to ensure that characters with the same point total can be about equally effective. On the other hand, there all alternatives to this, such as the rules for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game, which make slayers more powerful than their supporting casts, but adjust the flow of events so that the supporting casts get more lucky breaks. More powerful characters are normally built on more points.
The first role-playing games, starting with Dungeons and Dragons, mostly relied on a different approach: rolling dice to determine a character's capabilities. The theory was that if every character's traits were rolled the same way, then whatever differences emerged were fair, in the sense that they weren't the result of prejudice in any player's favor. This came to be disliked, partly because a player who got unfavorable rolls might end up playing an inept and boring character, and partly because the player's choice of what kind of character to play was strongly restricted by the random results of dice rolls. A player who wanted to play a learned wizard might randomly get a strong, healthy character with the IQ of a dodo; one who wanted to play a lightning-wielding superhero might come out with telepathic communication with insects and the ability to jump long distances. Early games handed the player a random character and asked them to come up with ways to narrate; current games more often let players come up with the narrative premise and create a character to suit it. This has proved better at getting players involved with the roles they play.
In the resulting approach, players normally get a limited point budget, and have to pick the traits they can afford. This forces them to prioritize, deciding from the outset what will be important to the characters they mean to portray. In many games, they can also take on negative traits, such as blindness, a persistent enemy, or an inability to resist drinking and partying. These traits give them extra points to spend on positive traits; in effect, they're being rewarded for provide the game master with narrative hooks for limiting their characters' options or getting them into difficult situations. The character description isn't just a list of cool powers; it's a contract that the player is expected to carry out.
Game masters sometimes simply give the players a point budget and a brief description of the setting, and let them go away and make up whatever characters they like. But it usually works better if the game master reviews the character writeup before letting the character into play. This includes checking the arithmetic, checking that the design is legal under the game rules, making sure that it's plausible within the defined setting, looking for ways to get the same abilities for fewer points, and suggesting other traits that a character with that concept logically would have or that produce a neat effect when combined with the traits the character already has. Ideally, a character design starts out with a core concept, and builds outward from that to define specific traits.
It's even better to sit the players down together and ask them to discuss their ideas for characters. For one thing, having to sum up a character helps a player define a core concept in a way that other people can understand. For another, if two players have come up with concepts that overlap too much, or that will lead to undesirable interpersonal conflict, they can choose other ideas to develop. The game master can guide players to work as an ensemble creating roles they all can comfortably take on.
The goal of character creation is to create characters who have both the ability to do something significant about the situations that will arise during the campaign, and a motive for taking action. Characters have to be designed in a way suited to the theme, in other words. A character lacking either will be an extraneous element in the campaign and will tend to disrupt the flow of the narrative.
Effective character design starts from the essentials. An effectively designed character isn't the result of adding on every impressive ability the player can think of, but of settling on a core role and function and choosing specific traits that suit it. If the character has weaknesses or flaws, they work best if they naturally derive from the character's positive traits in some way. A well designed character is unified by a theme of its own, one that relates to the overall theme of the campaign in some logical way.
Especially for campaigns that aim to emphasize the artistic aspect over the game aspect, part of this theme should be motivational and emotional. A good character should care about something. In an action/adventure story, characters may be motivated by simple survival, or wealth, or a straightforward cause, or the thrill of taking risks; in a more complex story, they need more complex goals. Passion is what brings a character to life.
One effective tool for achieving this is the character background: a story of what the character was doing before they showed up on stage for their first adventure. Consider, for example, the classic comic book superhero Batman. His story doesn't begin with an adult man putting on a bat costume and going out to fight crime; it begins with a seven-year-old boy seeing his parents shot to death on a city street by a robber, and swearing vengeance in their names. This is what has made Batman stand out from dozens of other wealthy men who fight crime in exotic costumes: he has a real reason for his career.
The backstory doesn't have to be the first element in a character design. Some players start out with a biography; others start out with a present-day character concept, or even a single central theme, and figure out the backstory by asking how the character would have gotten there. The method isn't important, as long as it leads to the result.
In some campaigns, the characters may start out as strangers, and be brought together in the course of play. But often they start out connected in some way. They may all be members of a team, a club, or a ship's crew, for example. Or individual characters may know other characters, and have history in common within them. It's even possible to combine the two, with some members of a team having a special history with other members. This is another point that can be discussed before the campaign itself starts, during character creation.
Because role-playing games are open-ended, and typically played in multiple sessions, they have a serial character, like television shows, comic books, or series of novels. Often, each episode has its own plot, from exposition to dénouement. But they can also have plot elements that continue from episode to episode. In some campaigns, this continuing plot is the more important plot, or even the only plot; rather than the end of an episode being a dramatic conclusion, it's more like a break between chapters in a novel.
However, it's easier to describe the working out of plots for a single session or episode first.
Because of the improvisational character of role-playing games, it's not practical to plan out a plot ahead of time. The players' input into the storyline inevitably changes it from what the game master envisioned, both because they can think of effective actions that didn't occur to the game master, and because they know their characters better than the game master does. Rather, the starting point for a role-playing session is a situation and a problem that arises out of it. The efforts of the protagonists to solve the problem create the plot.
The first stage in a session is the hook: the scene, usually brief, that hints that something significant is going on and gets the players interested. This leads into the exposition, in which the game master gives the initial information on what the problem is, and on the situation that surrounds it. These stages are comparatively passive for the players. However, if they have a defined occupation, such as detective, merchant, or superhero, they can become active quickly, asking questions and seeking information. Player-directed exposition is usually more effective at getting players to retain information, because it answers their own questions, not the game master's planned questions.
Investigation shades into complications, as the player characters try to solve the problem, and run into initial obstacles. A large part of role-playing consists of the game master describing an event or a situation, looking at one or all of the players, and asking, "What do you do?" As a result of their actions, the player characters may gain more information, remove obstacles, or come to the attention of an important adversary and provoke them to strike back. Eventually this leads to a climax, in which a struggle is resolved or a question answered. The result, in turn, leads to a dénouement, a return to a stable, balanced situation.
In role-playing games, the tense moments are generally represented by tests of skill. These are scenes where the dice come out, in a typical game. The players stop just narrating their characters' actions, and roll dice, which represent their characters' chances of success or failure. The risk of failure creates a sense of tension and excitement; the players can't know for sure that the outcome will be what they want.
The same general pattern applies to a continuing campaign. Even a completely open-ended campaign, with no overall problem that the characters have to resolve, typically has an exposition phase, in which the players get their first exposure to the setting and learn how things work there. Among other things, these early sessions can present a prototype problem, one typical of the characters' goals or needs, on which later sessions can be variations.
In a campaign with a continuing plot, the first sessions can also present hints at the larger problem that's going to confront the player characters. The actual nature of the problem may take some time to emerge. Its solution can be the climax of an entire campaign, or of a story arc, to be followed by a new story arc with a new long-term problem.
Ideally, the long-term story isn't just external action, but involves changes in the characters themselves. For example, when I ran a campaign set in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the year 1810, the Slayer started out as a young Spanish woman from a liberal, aristocratic household, whose main interests were clothes, balls, and flirtation, with the men she flirted with carefully kept at a distance, even while her duties as a Slayer involved a more masculine-seeming freedom of action. But as the campaign continued, the character realized that a Slayer's life expectancy was only a few years, and eventually decided to stop caring about respectability and accept one of the other characters, a soldier, as her lover. This was a change in attitude that grew out of the action/adventure plot, and also reflected the emergent theme of the campaign, the contrast between social propriety and supernatural forces that cared nothing about human notions of decency.
In long-term campaigns, the situation can be carried forward from session to session. And the actions of the player characters in an earlier session can suggest new problems, as the game master works out what reactions those actions are going to provoke. Plot development is the area in which the participatory character of this narrative form emerges most strongly. A wry old military saying has it that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy; this is equally true of a game master's plan for the story of a session or a campaign. But the common desire of the players and the game master to play out a series of interesting events can lead to an emergent plot, in which later episodes are not random, but build on earlier ones.
The resulting narratives will never have the perfection of a novel composed by a single writer. There is no time for polishing them repeatedly, at length, before they reach the audience; their first draft and their delivery to the audience take place at the same time, as with any improvisational art. But, at the same time, they give the audience the pleasure of being co-creators, not just imitatively, as when listeners at a concert join in singing a familiar refrain, but as originators whose bits of narrative and dialogue can change the shape of the work. The game master's skill shows best not in absolute control of the narrative, but in adapting to unexpected developments with an unexpected ingenious and fitting narrative twist. And part of this skill is the ability to obtain the best action and dialogue from the players, helping them to make their characters memorable.
© 2008 William H. Stoddard
Guise at Troynovant