Thursday, August 28, 2008

RPGs are literary forms: A reply to Pat Harrigan

Awhile ago I wrote a mini-review of Things We Think About Games, and in it I said I'd like to explore the 109th thought in that book: RPGs are not literary forms. This comes from Pat Harrigan who's other tidbits in Things We Think were some of the best. In fact, I think I partially agree with him, but I'd like to explore this issue further.

Harrigan paraphrases a line about great books not being able to be read, but only reread. Great literature has a quality in its depth that might only reveal itself on further examination. So far I'm not in disagreement with him.

RPGs though - or the scenarios we play out in games - are only played once. No examination, only further movement.

First, I want to challenge this point on making our sole criteria of literary quality the reread-ability of great works. There are many classics of literature that have thematic depth, subtext, and other qualities that are noticeable on first reading - especially to intelligent and enthusiastic readers (I'm not accusing Harrigan of lacking these traits, I'm just saying I think he forgot about further literary qualities).

RPGs are capable - and often greatly encouraged - to develop a theme woven into stories and chronicles. I believe White Wolf's World of Darkness line does an excellent job of this. Both in the first chapters and storyteller chapters of their books they discuss the use of theme in games. This is one way that RPGs can have literary quality.

RPGs could - in theory - have subtext woven into them too, but I believe this would be more difficult. It's the same with improv theater. In theory an improv scene can have subtext in it, but this is not the primary goal and the group would either have to go out of their way to introduce the subtext or it would have to come out by accident. So, this is a possibility, but less so than theme.

In RPGs characters can develop, change, and reach great depth as chronicles progress. I believe this is another way RPGs can have something approaching literary quality. This becomes a more collaborative effort though on both the game master and players part, and there is an element of luck in characters surviving and characters engaging in the right kinds of situations that would give them depth - this isn't entirely luck, not by far - but it seems like luck would play a greater role in these instances than in the development of a novel.

Finally, on reexamination - why couldn't we replay certain campaigns and re-explore issues further? Granted, this isn't often likely done, but replaying the same scenario to explore a certain issue of character or theme might give RPGs something more like the literary quality that Harrigan says they lack.


Ravyn said...

I'm with you; then again, the whole focus of my blog was originally the literary potential of roleplaying games, or at least their use as a way for a writer to practice some of the more useful skills (show, don't tell comes to mind), so I'm a little biased.

(And who says these things don't have reread value? I have chat-game archives I've reread more times than I've reread some of the more recent books, and one of my friends once managed to do psychological analyses of the characters in the game he was running that were sufficiently in-depth to fulfill a college class's requirements.)

Zach L said...

Just a short one here, but you forgot to mention all the little things gaming groups do to extend the longevity and interest in their games -- most notably, writing character memoirs and retrospectives on what just happened.

Another thing, less common now than it was in the past, is novelization of campaigns. It's how Dragonlance got started (basically). It's rare, and it's not technically the roleplaying itself, but it counts for something, eh?

Typhinius said...

Correct me if I'm wrong zach, but did you just call Dragonlance literature? ;p

Jack Phillips said...

zach l,

Although those things could be literature, I'm not sure if those extensions are part of the game itself.

I would say that the same setting or characters can be used for multiple purposes but just because The Dark Knight Returns could be labeled a literary comic it doesn't mean Adam West's Batman tv series has that same merit.

Those things though, novels, memories, could easily have literary value though. I think I'd label them as a separate medium though.

Ishmayl said...

I'm with ravyn on this one. I can often go through my journal entries of older campaigns and read them as though looking over a favorite story, However, I think that may not be as close to the point you're trying to make as:

Six years ago, ran a very successful campaign where the group of heroes finished off the series with a bang, and then retired. Two years later, I had a new group I was playing with, with two of the same players from the previous group, and I really wanted to run through some of the similar adventures in the world again. So I explained to the two be-back players what I was doing, and told them that I expected them to play in-character appropriately, which neither had a problem doing. What resulted was an astounding and completely different adventure that put the previous one to shame. There were similarities, but overall, it was a vastly different campaign. Now, I know that this is not the definition of re-readability in the strictest sense, but it is definitely a replaying of what is essentially the same campaign, with the utmost success, and everyone had a great time. I would say that serves its purpose as "re-readable" pretty well.

typhinius said...

As a more useful comment, I do actually go back and read summaries to "relive" a campaign. I really enjoy it quite a bit, and do occasionally think of things that I didn't pick up in the moment. That said, for the only time I've actually GMed much (I ran d20 Starwars for a while) I tried to write up summaries for the sessions, but it took a lot of time...time that I'd rather have been spending working on the upcoming session rather than rehashing what I'd already done.