Co-creation in Table-Top Roleplaying Games after Waiting for Godot
by Will Creed
One night, a few months ago, I was running just another session of my Dungeons and Dragons campaign when something happened that made me stop for a moment and think. I had three players who were exploring the game world looking for a tavern in the wilderness where they could drop off one of the characters whose player wasn’t at the table that night. After picking their way through a snow-clogged pine forest for a while they come across a large paddleboat “The Queen of the River” quietly moored at a remote dock in the highest reaches of a far-flung river. The three characters drop off their friend, order a room for him and breakfast for themselves. After this is done, the barman clears his throat and hands one of the characters a letter which he gratefully accepts. You see, in my D&D world, post magically finds its way to whomever it is addressed to and is distributed by postmen who start their rounds at the local pub. The three find their way to a veranda on the stern of the boat and wait for their breakfast to arrive. The character who received the letter – Paarla Nezhov, the heir to an immensely rich trading dynasty from the southern town of Zhukovstadt – opens it up and begins to read. Its from his father and, with Paarla’s mother approaching her birthday, he would like for Paarla to buy some local paintings as a present. As the player sat and read the physical letter which I had produced for him one of the other players asks him in character about it. “What’s in the letter?” comes the question from Meora – the wildwoman Elf who lived for most of her life in a cave and as a result doesn’t have the ability to read or write – and Paarla replies with the birthday and the need for a present. With all due credit to the players, they roleplayed this magnificently as Meora’s mind was boggled by such concepts and Paarla diligently explains in the best way that he can. The third character, Pen Saeth – who is the lost prince of a fallen empire – buts in: “I haven’t celebrated my birthday in decades.” Happily waiting for their breakfast, the three converse around the topic of birthdays, parents and presents for something like 20 minutes in real time. As a dungeon master, I had nothing to do but sit back and watch the tawdry conversation unfold, allowing my players to continue to talk for as long as they wanted. It was, after all, their game and I wanted to make sure they got as much enjoyment out of this encounter as they wanted.
However, as a student of literature and someone with an interest in the arts and their ever-shifting boundaries, I was intrigued with what was emerging before me. Here were three individuals who, over the course of the several month long campaign (the term that we in the Roleplaying community use to describe the succession of games with persistent characters and plotlines), had become invested in their characters and the world that I had created to the point where they could recreate and act within it on their volition with just the smallest input from myself. Whilst I had allowed the players the ability to create their own characters, I had worked hard on the creation of the world the fabric of which those characters had been woven. Pen Saeth’s imperial heritage was borne from my descriptions of the recently fallen Kathcan Empire, Meora’s cave-dwelling had come from the fictional druidic religions and Paarla’s involvement in southern trade networks had come from my description of the rich trading cities of the south of my setting. They had embarked on several adventures, such as burning down University buildings and defeating evil cults, to fulfil their goals of finding long lost parents or making as much money as they could. Each of these dramatic actions had given the players a sense of purpose. They were playing a game and attempting to win. But, in roleplaying a simple restaurant ritual on a floating tavern, they were doing nothing and having fun.
What are the implications of this? On a superficial level, it could be said that they had simply reached a point of immersion where they were able to enjoy a simple conversation. Now that the players had engaged with the world so that a certain level of verisimilitude was possible, they were able to engage with each other in character without my input. However, by choosing to use this power in the pursuit of nothing this event instead marked a threshold of this verisimilitude. The players could have equally looked to me for a cue as much as they could have begun a conversation out of character about similar frivolities. Instead, they had chosen to stay enthralled by the rules of the campaign world, their characters and their limited resources to reproduce the tedium of everyday life. In essence, the production of nothing.
“Nothing to be done.” Such is the immortal first line uttered by the tramp Gogo in Samuel Beckett’s 1953 masterpiece Waiting for Godot. The play opens with the two tramps, Didi and Gogo, stood alone in a bleak landscape. There is only a single, dead tree as a landmark. The two are waiting for an unknown and unseen character called Godot who, despite the two acts and almost two-hour running time, never shows up. The tramps engage in a prattling conversation, sentences are exchanged but a wider discourse never emerges, they are impulsive and wracked with indecisions as to eat carrots, urinate or commit suicide during their seemingly unending wait. During the wait they are visited by the imperious Pozzo and his simpering slave Lucky. Pozzo is taking Lucky to the fair to be sold. But, despite their seeming richness of character nothing happens of note. Pozzo smokes, Lucky thinks and a suitcase is dropped on Gogo’s foot. Pozzo and Lucky exit and the act concludes. Act two is much the same, except this time Lucky and Pozzo are blind. They have come from the same direction as the previous act, the day before, but have no recollection of the previous day. Pozzo has mysteriously retained his lost affects from the day before. At the end of both days, a boy approaches the pair and tells them that Godot may not meet with them “but surely tomorrow.” On each of his visits he claims to have not known Pozzo and Lucky, and on each day, he claims that it is his first visit. As Gogo says at the end of the first act “nothing is certain” and indeed, nothing is done.
The drama critic Martin Esslin uses Waiting for Godot as the holotype for what he calls the ‘Theatre of the Absurd.’ According to him, it is the lack of narrative and divorce from the standard rules of real-world communication that open up the interpretive possibilities of an abstract style of theatre that emerges during the latter half of the twentieth century. Of course, by now it is standard practise to acknowledge that texts can mean different things to different people. However, the theatre of the absurd was the first movement in the arts to offer a richness of character, a poetry of language and a drama of action that was designed to obfuscate a clear interpretation in order to breed a wealth of potential interpretations. As a piece of art, the play presents us with Godot as a character who is always waited for, but his status or existence is unknown. It is often read as a representation of Camusian existentialism, what do we do in a world where God does not exist? Must we constantly fill our meaningless days with meaningless activities? What does it matter if we are to die anyway? Does Godot represent death or salvation?
The true lesson then is that profound truths can be found in anything that allows the reader to form a viable narrative from the richness that a text expresses. Again, this is nothing new to us, Waiting for Godot is now over 60 years old. However, if this is the case then how can we take the lessons that Beckett gives us and apply those to Tabletop Roleplaying games? More importantly, why would you want to? They are, after all games, and (if the recent desperate trend in attempting to analyse video games as texts has taught us) games don’t facilitate being read in such a way. The problem that is posed by games is the contingency of play. One might look to the stories of certain video games such as the Half Life or Bioshock series as potential candidates. Indeed, these series really did make great strides in determining what a video game story could be, they were immersive and as explorations of Science-Fiction Dystopic horror they were good. However, the player was always having to diverge in the story in order to solve puzzles or fight enemies. To an extent, but less so than previous games, the story was still there to tie together various challenges. In these games you either win or you lose and if the latter should be true then you don’t have access to the further story. The player’s characters can die and come back to life to attempt the challenge again. What is ‘text’ in this scenario? Is it the story/world unbroken by the ‘game’ aspects of it?
Ideally, it would be the unbroken story but if this were the case then each story would amount to around the time of a Hollywood movie. However, as these games often last around 20 hours of play time you can see how inefficient these games are in actually getting their point across. More recent games like Detroit: Become Human which deals with a dystopic future where AI cyborgs with human-like personalities are treated as second class citizens deals with this issue slightly better. The challenges in Detroit often revolve around story decisions, with each choice effecting the storyline that might change the end of the episode or the longer story. This means that play is directly converted into thematic and narrative progression. However, the multiple choices that are available make the narrative of the game resemble a turn of the millennium hypertext than a conventional text. As the player completes an episode, they are confronted with a flowchart of the choices they made and the narrative ‘trees’ that they could have accessed. As such, we are confronted with the similar problem of character death that we saw in Half Life and others. As the game compels the players to complete it, we, the reader/player, are confronted with a problem of authenticity. If we complete the game and discover all the different options, then we can potentially unearth something about the essence of the game itself. However, since a narrative relies upon events happening in a sequence it does nothing to tell an actual story. Moreover, since these might entail potentially contradictory versions of events, we are not even given the static tableaux offered by any art form, whether that be a novel, painting or play. Despite the amorphic interpretative possibilities that Waiting for Godot encouraged, it was still possible to re-watch it. Everyone saw Gogo say “nothing to be done” and saw the absurdity of Beckett’s play in full force. In short, Waiting for Godot was absurd, but it was consciously so, and there was a text there can could be interpreted, argued over and reviewed now 60 years on from its first appearance.
So, if the permanence or integrity of a text is meaningful to its status as an art work, then how can the mode to table-top roleplaying games avoid the pitfalls of the video game? Perhaps I shall have to digress a little and explain exactly how a game like the one I opened with works. (This might take some time so there is a TL;DR at the bottom of this section.) Instead of the game being an interaction between player and software, as it is in with video games, table-top roleplaying games compose of a group of players, usually 3-5, one games master (or GM as I shall use from hereon) and a set of rules. These rules come in various forms known as ‘systems’ and are associated with brands that you might be familiar with: Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Talisman, Call of Cthulhu etc. For ease of use, due its popularity and relative familiarity, I shall use the term D&D (an abbreviation of Dungeons and Dragons) to refer to the emergent game although the experience that I am describing could be used to refer to any of the aforementioned systems. The GM prepares content, usually in the form of a setting and plotlines or quests, and the players create characters pertaining to the rules. The GM tells the players about the game world they are being dropped into, keeping all the juicy quests hidden behind their GM Screen (a small structure designed to stop the players from seeing the GM’s notes), and then they create characters around these salient details. These characters operate both discursively, through details relating to their appearance and backstory, as well as statistically, as their pieces of paper with the information on the characters (a ‘Character Sheet’) will also entail a list of numbers delineating their skills and abilities. Exactly what these skills and abilities are varies from systems to system but the process of character creation pertaining is usually left for the players themselves to decide. A game will start with the GM offering exposition on a situation or scene which the players can then choose to interact with in which ever way they see necessary.
Let me explain with the most hackneyed example: I, the GM, describe to the players a scene such as “You are all sat a table in a bustling tavern. Around you, there is the standard fare of The Rusted Goblin at dinner time. There is a group of Dwarven traders to your right who are talking quietly amongst themselves. In another corner, a huge Man with a shaved head is speaking harshly to another, more timorous, man who seems also to be getting agitated. Behind the bar, you can see Samantha, the barmaid, pulling pints and speaking jovially with some regulars. Posted there amongst the hanging bottles on crude wooden optics, you see a poster depicting a lean character with a cigarillo hanging from his mouth. ‘Wanted’, it says, ‘Smokin’ Jones: Bandit and Smuggler. Fifty Gold Piece reward.’” The Rusted Goblin is then my players’ sandbox. Do they offer a cautionary ear to listen in to the Dwarves Conversation? Investigate the wanted poster? Try and chat up Samantha? Of course, they are free to attempt to investigate the spirit bottles, eavesdrop the huge man and woo a dwarf if they choose. As mediator of the player’s decisions to the setting, the GM determines whether the bald man starts a fight or how strong that ripe looking 12 year behind the ice bucket actually is. And it goes on from there. That play session might develop into a pub crawl or barroom brawl. More often then not the players will hunt for that bounty on Smokin’ Jones but if there is a character who isn’t driven by money or abstract ideas about justice then the plot could diverge in whichever direction it needs. Thus, a campaign is born.
(I’m skipping over a lot here mostly in regards to the statistical underpinning of the various systems and esoteric issues of decorum but this isn’t important to my overall point.)
TL;DR: Four people sit down at a table. One has a screen and many sheets of paper. The others maybe have some sheets of paper and some dice. The one with the screen describes a scenario, the others respond. Through a process of description and response, a story is made.
The clear differences between this and the single player video game should be apparent. Instead of one player interacting with an unyieldingly rigid plotline, however many choices there are along the way, instead elements of contingency emerge through the interaction of various characters with a plastic and mediated game world. Ultimately, the role of the GM in creating a world around the players as they interact with its various elements and each other allows for a narrative to emerge between the people at the table. Most importantly, this narrative is not reliant on the tedium so prevalent in conventional video games. A character can die, and the story goes on. It may even then revolve around trying to source some means of resurrecting that character. The narrative that emerges is not reliant on the one character who must constantly relive a certain encounter that they cannot overcome due to lack of skill. The story can continue to evolve around that event. Nor are the characters actions determined by the rigid limitations of possibility enforced by the GM’s game world. A D&D game that is run right allows the players to be able to tell their own stories that operate in co-operation with the world around them as much as it relies upon co-operation with the players that they share the game with. This allows players to engage in a genuine form of expression through their characters, allowing them to tell their own stories with their own tensions, traumas and resolutions. But, remember how the characters of Meora, Pen Saeth and Paarla Nezhov were each woven out of a particular corner of my world’s fabric? It is the story that is woven out of these character’s lives which allow for a narrative to arise not just for the individuals but also as a group. Together, they can create a story that is as persistent, water-tight and expansive as any novel by Ursula Le Guin or Tolkein. Despite not being real, they trend towards realism.
The conversation of my characters might then be viewed from two different approaches. On the one hand, they are the tawdry reproductions of the everyday practices of real humans in the real world. The surplus activity of an integrated and consistent gameworld. But on the other hand, it might be seen as an overlap with the nonsense of Beckett and, by extension, be considered under the same existentialist rubric of the play. These indistinct moments of gameplay, seemingly the most detached from our own in their attempts at redefining real-world entities such as birthdays, overlap with the player’s real-world knowledge. When viewed critically, we might then view these conversations as ways of redefining our own lived experience precisely because they seek to define things within the gameworld by the game’s own logic, the line between game and world, player and character, reality and fantasy might then be blurred. Far from the contrived story telling experiences of a video game or the abstract nature of Waiting for Godot, D&D affords the players of the game to encounter the absurdity of their own lives through a cultural lens that is both their own and something different, new, exciting, destabilising. Through co-creation the player-characters, or more precisely the players/characters, engage in moments of creation and destruction, moments of cultural revolution in which old ideas are upheld whilst new ones are made.
So, what’s an article like this doing in an arts context? Well, a relatively simple point like this might not prove that D&D can be art. Rather, what I hope to have shown is that certain moments within roleplaying games can have artistic tendencies. However, my point is that should a DM encourage it, and the players acknowledge it, it might be possible to move the medium of roleplaying games towards an artistic medium based upon the creative powers of multiple agencies. This is, of course, not the only point to be made on the matter either.