Part 1--Intro to PIG-PIP
30. Game Text As Reference Vs Game Text As Speech
Tabletop RPG theory has usually, in the past, taken the form of practical advice directed usually and especially to one specific entity involved in games and negotiating its relationship to another entity: Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering is directed toward a GM and telling them how to work with players, the original Threefold Model, GNS, and RSP theory are directed toward matching groups to game texts or instructing writers on how to write game texts. The uniquely rhetorically complex nature of tabletop RPG game texts is often obscured.
The most obvious example is how often the game text is simply called "The Game". An example should illustrate the strangeness of this: you can't fully analyze how a team played baseball without reference to the home-field advantage, even though the home-field advantage is nowhere in the rulebook, yet over and over in formal RPG theory The Game and all its outcomes are supposed to proceed from the rules.
Game books work in many ways. Right now I'm going to draw a distinction between non-fiction texts as reference and non-fiction texts as speech.
"Reference" here means in the sense of a dictionary: a set of statements, recommendations, etc consulted in pieces, where the meaning doesn't depend on reading in a linear way. That is: a dictionary still makes sense if you read the entry for"Pepper" before "Aardvark".
"Speech" here is used in the sense of "The president gave a speech": that is, a series of rhetorical moves where the order changes or is intended to chance if not the meaning precisely then at least the reception of the words by the audience. A speech is different if it begins "My fellow Americans..." vs "A funny thing happened on the way to the VFW tonight..." even if both statements are somewhere in both versions of the speech.
Most RPG theory treats the game text ("The Game") as if it only acts as reference: The rules are there and allegedly responsible for discrepancies between desire and outcome.
In reality, even before the "What's This Game About?" section, there is an image. This image takes different forms:
If the game is not famous (as with most games that you might hear about online or with Dungeons & Dragons as it appeared to wargamers in 1974) the image is a combination of what is on the cover and what the words on that cover communicate ("Dungeons & Dragons, Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper And Pencil and Miniature Figures" "Men & Magic" and a picture of a warrior in unrealistically--fantastically, you might say--spiky armor).
If the game is famous, the first image is a combination of the reputation of the game, the advertising of the game, and the actual packaging.
This is not a small thing. Because both players and GM:
-Choose to begin participating largely if they are attracted to the image
-Are often given the book or offered the opportunity to play based on someone else's assessment that they are attracted to the image--in some cases by parents who will forever know nothing more than the image, and
-(Most importantly) since tabletop RPGs require that participants invent elements to even work at all, and participants consciously and unconsciously assume that fun happens by bending their choices toward the image and the tropes it implies (name the elf "Silverblade", include a castle with a moat even if moats aren't in the rules yet)
...the initial and subsequent images the text presents shape genuine play in tabletop RPGs in real and extensive ways that are difficult to fully describe without going beyond just a programmer or boardgame designer's vocabulary of rules, but also the vocabularies of art, psychology and sociology.
The very first RPG book includes a fan-submitted illustration of creatures described nowhere in the text: "Beautiful Witch" and "Amazon". Knowing this was a "fantastic medieval" game was enough for at least this player to realize these characters could be in it.
Vampire: The Masquerade has a complex and ongoing LARP culture that uses rules nowhere in the original text. However, the themes emphasized in the LARPs (powers, humanity loss, feeding, etc) are all strongly influenced by the text-as-speech if not loyal to the text-as-reference.
It's usually understood that inventions "inside" a game's presumed genre tropes "should" work and those outside it void the warranty ("firearms will ruin your D&D game") but what does and does not fit the tropes is often assumed to be clearer to each living participant than it is. Genre assumptions are usually treated as something that either need not be said, or something that can very easily be said, when in reality getting a full palette of genre assumptions across is as complex and fraught an act of communication as trying to teach someone what musical gestures represent "jazz" and which don't.
For example, this isn't a flaw in Apocalypse World. That's not because it is mechanically impossible or undesirable in the rules-as-reference, but because the rhetorical structure of Apocalypse World as rules-as-speech would scare off anyone who thought this would be fun.
Because tropes and assumptions shape play as much or sometimes more than rules, when considering the influence of a text-as-speech in forming a game experience, a critic needs to consider a number of cultural and sociological factors including:
-When it was written
-What genre tropes can readers be assumed to be aware of (is steampunk a thing yet for this audience?)
-What the illustrations suggest
-What the wider awareness of the game or games was in the mind of the reader (many small online RPGs assume a reader knows what an RPG is, or assume familiarity with at least D&D)
-What gameplay culture does the text assume is dominant
-Whether audiences interacting with the text can be assumed to be homogenous (all equally aware of steampunk tropes) or heterogeneous (some need it explained more than others)
-How much of the text will be read by different participants and which part (it's common that nobody playing a given D&D game has read all the spell descriptions, or that only one person who's playing Dread has even touched the book)
-How charismatic is the text about presenting different principles and procedures vs others and for which audiences (It's possible one potential player could walk away from Dogs in the Vineyard excited about moral choices while another walks away hoping for shoot-outs with demon children whose hair moves in the wind even when there isn't any--this will shape play).
I would add a caveat saying that the more freedom of choice an RPG offers, the more "soft" rhetorical gestures can influence play, but in practice I've found every RPG offers so much freedom that these gestures always matter. You can "break" pretty much any game by deciding to play against the style it assumes but the textual acrobatics required to procedurally hard-code rules that head-off such fuckery are always a burden in themselves (though that subject should be addressed formally in a later entry).
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