Playing With(in) Boundaries: Towards an understanding of co-creation in TTRPGS.
by Matthew Keracher
I am writing to respond to your article entitled, “Co-creation in Table-Top Roleplaying Games after Waiting for Godot.” As an avid games master and ethnographer of roleplaying groups I whole-heartedly welcome the inclusion of the medium as the object of artistic speculation and criticism. I hope that comment on roleplaying games can find a permanent home here, as I look forward to the opportunities that this could mean for tabletop roleplaying games in Aberdeen.
Will Creed’s paper calls for the inclusion of tabletop roleplaying games within the landscape of Aberdeen arts and culture and opens the door for those within these communities to elevate roleplaying to the height of art criticism. As a student of anthropology working within the Aberdeen roleplaying community since 2015 I welcome the ability to engage in sustained, provocative, and generative debate. My own interest with TTRPGs is not literary nor particularly artistic as it might be for others, but rather in using socially intensive roleplaying games as a laboratory method to experience and reflect upon how people rhetorically engage with uncertainty.
Roleplaying games are exciting because they lie at the intersection of multiple forms and yet wholly satisfy none of them. A roleplaying game is not entirely a game, since there are no explicit win-conditions or endpoint; nor is it entirely about narrative, since the kind of structure that narrative imposes undermines the open-ended nature of roleplaying a character. The game is played to no end other than itself, and if there is a narrative to read into it is formulated post-hoc like any other social experience. Furthermore, whilst roleplaying is used in therapy as a technique, and players can achieve a level of catharsis through play, roleplaying games are primarily used as a recreational activity (in order to have “fun”).
Many of the kinds of questions that roleplaying games provoke are like that which drive the discipline of social anthropology. Particularly here we are talking about the creation and status of the world or worlds that we inhabit as social beings, and the ability to make new, more just and hopeful worlds for us to share together. As I have discovered in the course of my studies, the gatekeeper dichotomy for exploring such questions within the context of TTRPGs is the opposition between fantasy and reality.
However, I am hesitant to underscore the sub-real status that fantasy is often given, by relegating it always as a projection. It may be that players, in order to have fun, must maintain a distance between the world of the game and the wider world they hold at bay. This distinction however, is not something that should transfer uncritically into an anthropological, or etic, perspective. It could be said that people fetichise games, and through a cultural rhetoric meaningfully divorce them from everyday experience so they can work their magic. Yet, when we go deeper, moving beyond the rhetoric that players of games use to organise their experience, it can be shown that roleplaying games are not so different from the roleplaying we do everyday, otherwise. And as I hope to show, roleplaying games are not only equivalent to, and made from the same stuff as, reality; but also through their small-scale, direct and embodied nature, have the potential to be more than reality.
Fantasy is often conceived as a product of individual introspection, such as daydreaming. Within this perspective, fantasy is alienating, as is takes us away from the world as it really is; dangerous even, since it is tied up with the notion of anomie. (Rogue lunatics on the fringe of society suffering under an inability to judge truth from fiction, or the output of their minds from the input of the world around them). Yet when it comes to the ‘fantasy’ of tabletop roleplaying games, because it is always made with, through or sometimes against, other people, the status of fantasy defined in this way is inadequate to account for the experience of roleplaying games. People may bring their fantasies to the table, but once there they must exist in forum with others,’ and then things might play out a lot different to how they were imagined. Many roleplayers make the mistake of bringing too much of an already formulated notion of what they will be, or how the world is into this forum confusing it with what it means to be a successful roleplayer.
Success as a player or a Master within a game is not determined by how fantastic one is in an introspective sort of way but rather how outward-looking, actively listening and responsive they are to the people around them. In this way a good roleplayer is much the same as a good improviser. Acting and reacting to the explicit and implicit definition of the situation as it unfolds, drawing on a shared world of already established symbols (such as the author’s ancient Kathcan Empire or southern trade networks) they can reference to give their words weight with other players. Roleplaying is, in short, an uncannily social activity. We could call it an ideal social activity, in which people can interact in a way that is relatively unrestrained by the usual unspoken rules that mediate our relationships.
I want to return to Waiting for Godot and tidy up Will Creed’s comparison between the play and TTRPGs, which I feel fell a little flat in privileging the fantasy of his game, and the world of Waiting for Godot itself. It falls flat because such a focus elides the social production of each and the wider field of relations each always exist within. By approaching the same comparison but structured through Richard Schechner’s notion of performativity; an axiom of interrelating frames for meaning, I want to work towards an alternative way about thinking through TTRPGs.
Schechner’s analytical framework, in drawing attention to the multiple frames inherent in any performance, emphasises the dynamic influences between those frames and the dynamic meanings they produce. Therefore, to understand a live performance of Waiting for Godot we must delineate three frames for analysis; three ‘worlds’ of meaning:
• There is the world of the play itself. This is the world in which the protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for the arrival of someone named Godot who never arrives, and while waiting they engage in a variety of discussions and encounter three other characters.
• There is the world of the theatre. This is the world of running the same play fourteen times in ten days, and rehearsing it still for weeks prior to the first performance; a world in which the actors who play Vladimir and Estragon surely undergo an intense relationship with one another and with the director, the production crew, and other actors.
• Finally, there is the wider world in which all members of the production (including the audience) come from, and go out into. The status of the wider world is only interfaced with the play through the other two scales. John becomes an actor at work who becomes Vladimir, but cannot remember his lines because he has recently been drinking a lot more than usual. Bob and Deidre become audience members when they take their seats before the performance, but as Bob played Vladimir in last season’s run he spends the whole play silently, smugly judging John.
What I hope to have demonstrated here is that there is never just the world of the play itself, but that this is always interfaced with, or in synthesis with, other positioned understandings. This becomes relevant below when I use the same structure to analyse a TTRPG session. Notice of course that there is no way for Vladimir nor Estragon, as fictional characters, to speak back to the director, the audience, nor the wider world, outside of the contingency Beckett has laid out for them in the script. As Creed argues, “Waiting for Godot was absurd, but it was consciously so,” and therefore the world of the play itself is fixed.
When we talk about the relation between Waiting for Godot and the wider world as it can affect the outcome of the performance, this can be reduced to whether the actors perform the script successfully or not. Spontaneous events that should arise (such as the actor playing Vladimir being too drunk to remember his lines) ultimately are problematised only because we know what a performance of Waiting for Godot is supposed to ‘look like.’
Based on this schema, a tabletop roleplaying game has the same axiom of interrelated frames for analysis. However, as there is no set script per say within a TTRPG the degree of uncertainty and dynamism shared between different frames means that we cannot follow Schechner’s concentric model. Instead, as I will come to show, TTRPGs should instead be approached through a dialogic model based around concepts of collusion and uncertainty. Using Will Creed’s vignette as an example, we can first claim three frames:
• There is the world of the play itself, in which the author’s weary characters engage in “tawdry conversation,” contingent on the arrival of a letter over breakfast.
• There is the world of the game, in which “three individuals who, over the course of the several months-long campaign had become invested in their characters and the world that [Creed] had created to the point where they could recreate and act within it on their volition with just the smallest input from [himself].”
• Then, there is also the wider world in which it is the marked absence of a player that calls into necessity a nearby place to drop off their character, on the large paddleboat Queen of the River, where the letter is introduced.
Imagine the organisation of these interrelating frames not as a Venn diagram but as being concentric, with the world of the play as dictated by Beckett itself at the centre. As we move out along the radius through the wider circles of the actor’s practice and performance, and in its outmost reaches to the audience, action is not so fixed but becomes more uncertain. Afterall, there is no risk of reading the script twice and finding different words; at the level of actors and audience members however, social indeterminacy has an increasing effect. Estragon cannot reflexively say to John, “Sober up!” without it being the intention of the infuriated actor playing Estragon. Bob could storm the stage and rival the drunk-John-Vladimir by performing the lines from the play in a way more technically accurate than the drunk can formulate. That really would be absurd.
With Waiting for Godot, the assurance of the script anchors an ontological order of meanings and it does so in a concentric way. The concentric formation is not ordered around the centre however, but rather all of the frames are contained within the widest circle. An ontological priority is extended to the wider world and inspires the idea of the “suspension of disbelief.”
In order to shift the emphasis in a way that really captures what we mean when moments in roleplaying are artful, we need to have an approach that can show how artful moments are achieved through the dynamic meanings inspired by a synthesis of frames, each of which are ontologically level to one another in performance. A move to ontologically level the status of these frames is justified if we evaluate what makes them ontologically similar. Each has a similar relationship to uncertainty, one which is not shared in the analogous frames within a performance of Waiting for Godot. To reiterate, there is no uncertainty in the script itself, since it has already been written by Beckett, and an ontological ordering for performance is concentrically organised from this fact. The farther out from the centre we go, the more agency or ‘realness’ there is to the worlds that might change the interpretable outcome of the performance.
But when we bring Schechner’s schema into a TTRPG, as above, the consequence is that what happens in-game for these formulations are not as “real” as those that occur out-of-game. Yet the degrees of reality we are differentiating here are really the degrees to which uncertainty plays a causal role and effects the outcome of what happens. As these are equivalent in process of roleplaying, I propose that instead of a concentric model for organising frames we take a dialogical approach. One that stresses an ontological plurality between the three worlds that synthesise into any understanding of a TTRPG session.
At the level of speech itself, when talk circulates around the table, people are players who are characters all at the same time using language that is not already presumed to be organised into respective discourses (as pertaining to the world of the characters, the players, etc). Rather, to play the game means first to ‘play together’, or ‘collude,’ into what talk pertains to whom, indexes which discourse, and to which world of meaning it belongs.
The fantasy world is an artefact of this process. We can either make an artefact which is a abstraction of this play and turn it into isolable fantasy narrative, or we can appraise the artful construction of it as revealed by a synthesis of multiple frames for meaning.
Will Creed does this implicitly, unable to explain why he was so moved by the moment described in his vignette without recourse to the social and material conditions that lead to such a moment. The compelling nature of a ‘tawdry’ conversation cannot be understood without recourse to the player’s socialisation as character within the world. However, I feel as if the desire to raise the status of the fantasy itself misses how we might move forward as game masters to practically give intensity and intimacy to such moments.
In stressing a dialogic approach, we can begin to scrutinise how the uncertainty within fantasy relate to the other two frames in a causal manner. Instead of fantasy as opposed to reality, or character as opposed to person, what if we conceive of fantasy roleplaying as more than reality? If we dispense with this dichotomy, which places them largely along the same lines as in-game and out-game, we can begin to conceive of both of them as part of an ongoing social process that plays with the same rhetorical means by which we make sense of an always uncertain world, otherwise, anyway.
The point is not whether the fantasy can change the real in a way that ordinary forms of performance cannot. Indeed the analogue should not be to the stage nor video games, in which we say that TTRPGs are more lifelike, or more authentic forms of representation. The analogue should instead be to the kinds of roleplaying we do otherwise, anyway, which TTRPGs highlight, and make us sensitive to, reflexively aware of, through the synthetic meanings we are always playing with when we are around the table together.
And so if we are to represent what is happening at the table when such artful moments arise, then we have to attune to the synthetic understandings and the graceful or elegant collusion that happens to render a fantastic moment. For example:
Alan is the Dungeon Master of a weekly group of six players. Since he is the only one with a table big enough for them all to fit around however, the group plays at John’s house every week. Most of the people in the group smoke, except John and his girlfriend Sandra. John has a rule that nobody can smoke indoors. So, every twenty-five minutes to an hour, the group take a ten to fifteen-minute break to go into the back garden and smoke. This leaves John and Sandra indoors where they might stray into talk about the house, about hosting, or about their wider life as a couple. Outside, the people smoking might take out their phones to check their notifications or follow some news story. As the evening progresses later into the night, Sandra and John must ask the others to keep their voices down whilst they are outside. Sometimes during the later breaks, Sandra will decide to stop playing early and go to bed because she has work in the morning. The whole arrangement frustrates Alan, who lacks the ongoing attention of the group for any period long enough to progress his plans for the session along.
How can the fantasy as played by those around this table go beyond the reality described above? What considerations should we make about everything going on, and how artful moments can be designed for and such that they are allowed to emerge? I cannot offer a discrete, nor empirical, answer. Perhaps the smoking breaks are arranged all at once, every forty minutes. Such a programme allows Alan to plan for time prior to the session, but also crystallises the doubling interactions between smokers and non-smokers; hosts and guests. Would such an arrangement entrench, within the fantasy, already established ways of relating with one another?
Alternatively, if the breaks are arranged in an ad-hoc manner based upon absence or presence within the ‘scene’ at the table then players might take on a more fluid approach to when and with whom to break away, and one which affords a wider range of possible interactions as well as move to keep the noise down for the neighbours and stop Sandra going to bed early. Alan might play on whom to include in a scene around the table in such as way as to structure an ancillary scene outside from those ostensibly not included; Alan knows that they will leave the table and take the chance to smoke.
It is not just the fantasy itself that we should focus on in the consideration of what makes roleplaying moments artful. What might at first appear to Alan to be a situation that risks undermining the fantasy and underscoring non-game personalities, relations, and tensions, instead becomes a chance to have alternate, generative ways of player-characters interacting throughout the session.
And so to conclude, I think that our conversation about roleplaying within the context of artful moments must necessitate the synthesis of positioned meanings. As such, practical considerations for how we can play great roleplaying games begin with re-figuring the relationship between fantasy and reality not as opposing one another, but both always emerging from the same rhetorical negotiations with uncertainty.