Table Top Roleplaying Games as Literature

Previously, I talked about how games in general might serve as literature, but I want to focus specifically on the aspects of table top roleplaying games here. TTRPGs are primarily a hobby, enjoyed by millions (so they tell us) with varying degrees of dedication, but I would argue that they are also a narrative medium and, as such, literature. Note that I am not talking about RPG tie-in fiction or even the books written for use in and out of play, from world defining guides to adventure modules to rule books. Rather, I am referring to the play itself as well as the sort of post-play revision of that play (which I’ll talk about more later).

It is the narrative feature of TTRPGs that allow their play to be considered literature. In many cases, that narrative is shallow and/or linear, relying on overly-worn tropes and cliches. This truth, though, should not disqualify it from being considered literature, as much of what is thought of traditionally as literature is also shallow, linear, obvious and cliched. In rarer cases, the play of a TTRPG becomes something special, surprising the very people engaged in it and becoming, at least for the time they sit at the table and often for years to come, something wholly new and brilliant and engaging. Because TTRPGs rely on a collective to achieve successful play, with each participant providing not just character and dialogue but narrative structure, the literature that results resembles nothing so much as an improv troupe performing a mash up of Lord of the Rings and Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

Even so, story is achieved. What is interesting about TTRPG story development is that it is iterative in a few different ways. At its most basic level, during play, it is iterative in that occasionally decisions are reversed or results altered in order to strengthen or tighten the emerging narrative. On another level, iteration occurs during the ongoing connected adventures referred to as a “campaign” where rough edges are filed off and plot holes filled between adventures. This process is similar to the patchwork “retroactive continuity” or retconning common in comics books, with so many creators operating in shared universes with the same characters. It is smaller scale in TTRPGs, but exists nonetheless; inconsistencies and/or bad ideas are inevitable, and the campaign iterative process creates a more cohesive experience and narrative. Finally, there is an iterative process in reporting. That is, when the game is complete and the participants are telling the story of the story, ten minutes later or ten years, they refine that narrative through intentional modification and omission, reconstructed memory and post-play assessment. When a player tells you about how his 18th level paladin totally backstabbed Orcus, that is iterative narrative at work.

The problem with TTRPG play as literature, of course, is that, aside from that reporting iteration described above, there is most often no record, no text of the event. This is changing as more and more groups record their play and post it as podcasts on the internet. Especially when that play revolves around commonly shared experiences (Paizo’s Adventure Paths or beloved Dungeons and Dragons modules, for example) those recordings become very interesting documents indeed. Imagine different groups of actors all producing a version of Hamlet in one night with no script on hand, then comparing the results. There are so-called “actual play” reports common on gaming message boards, as well, and they provide a unique view into (usually) one individual’s perception of what happened during play. Those are not as reliable sources for what actually occurred, but are often much better literature to emerge out of play, as they are commonly the last step in the iteration of the story.

An on-line archive of TTRPG play, both in recorded format as well as post-play reports and transcripts, would go a long way toward establishing what happens at the table as a form of literature. I do not think it is likely that anyone would put such a transcript up for a Pulitzer, let alone that it would win, but that’s not the point. However small and niche and even weird the hobby of table-top roleplaying — of, essentially, a group of friends getting together to tell a story, with some rules and randomizers along to iron out disagreements about how things should develop in the narrative — it is, I believe, a form of literature and should be preserved and examined.

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The Circle Of Protection Service

I was unsure whether to include this in this blog, as it is just a write-up for a super-hero table top RPG I run. But as I am trying to get as many words written as possible, and this is going to devour much of my creative energy for the next couple of weeks, I figured, why not? Besides, gaming in general and TTRPGs in particular have defined my creative life for, well, most of my creative life. I tend to run games the same way I write — an idea, an outline maybe and then just go! — and I tend to treat my pre-game writing as seriously (or not, as the case may be) as my fiction. And, utlimately, there’s only like 2 of you so what’s the harm in boring you with some gaming related nonsense?

 

After the text itself, I will make a few comments, so if you make it through, stick around.

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During the Great War, the Circle of Protection — a loose alliance of super-beings — brought their incredible talents to bear against the rising evil of Osiron Empire and its saboteurs, secret agents and super villains allies. In their bright primary colors and their two fisted attitudes, the Circle of Protection enamoured the people of Erebar and the world over.

 

After the war, the Ereban-Dukemian-Hin Alliance (later to be called the Mutual Economic Defense and Interest Alliance (MEDIA) as other member states joined) agreed to expand the Circle of Protection program to include a “mundane” support network of military and civilian specialists. Over the course of the next ten years, that support staff became more and more prominent. The Circle Of Protection Service (COPS) was no long a super-hero team backed up by normal agents, but an expansive governmental agency (much of it clandestine) with a small super-heroic action team.

 

The directorship of COPS was granted to a military intelligence officer from the Great War, one Colonel Abernathy Paladin. Colonel Paladin was responsible for bringing the super-heroic members of the original CoP team in-line with MEDIA’s (and especially Erebar’s) interests and policies, or push them out. In addition, Col. Paladin made great strides in the growing cold war between MEDIA and the Elven Empire over the acquisition of newfound super-weapons (and super-people) in the post-War era. By allowing just enough of these secret operations to leak to the public (successful ones, of course) Paladin ensured strong public support for what was quickly becoming a super-spy international paramilitary organization.

 

Over the years, COPS has split its focus between the machinations of the Elven Empire and the emergence of independent super-beings (both hero and villain). Too often, these aspects cross and intertwine because of the Elven Empire’s aggressive policy of capture, containment and recruitment of super-powered individuals. In response, Col. Paladin instituted a controversial policy (among the Ereban and MEDIA governments, anyway) of undermining the very concept of the independent “super hero” and bolster the idea of the COPS as a super-response force. In this, their most useful and successful tool is the super-hero known as Bulkhead.

 

Bulkhead, monstrous in appearance but loyal and good in heart, emerged in the days prior to the Great War and joined the side of the angels as a member of the original Circle of Protection. After the war ended, Bulkhead stayed on and lent his immense power to the new COPS organization. Unsubtle in every way, Bulkhead is released against monsters that emerge from ancient mystical sites, horrors of science gone awry and other larger and louder than life threats. While all eyes (and cameras) are on Bulkhead, the rest of the COPS special team does its work (dirty or otherwise). Aside from his great power, the other advantage Col. Paladin saw in using Bulkhead as the public face of COPS super-heroics is his alienness. No square jawed, perfect haired hero with a shining emblem on his chest, Bulkhead is forever an Other, no matter how much good he does.

 

The recent increase in Eleven activity in non-MEDIA member states, especially the [African continent] countries as well as the rise in instances of individuals expressing or developing superpowered or mystical abilities has put COPS in a prominent position and made Col. Paladin one of the most powerful men in Erebar. With the apparent threats ever increasing, Paladin goes to more and more extreme lengths to combat those threats, using the twin tools of the COPS secret agents and its super-powered action team.

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I am guessing that you have a weird feeling of dissonance, that there are both familiar things in there and unfamiliar, connected in ways that don’t quite line up (unless, of course, you have played in a D&D campaign that have moved into a modern era dominated by super heroes). I thought I might explain a little bit. Obviosly, a great deal of the inspiration for this (and the previous events of the campaign) is American super hero comics, especially the various titles that take modern looks at the historical comic book eras. However, because this campaign and world were born out of a long series of D&D adventures, the inspiration and base mythology upon which the super heroic universe is built is different. In our world, the comic book heroes are based on folktales and myths common to Western civilization (or the near East and East, but poorly translated). Robin Hood, King Arthur, Thor, Zeus and Uncle Sam all serve as basis for American super-heroes. While I have intentionally held on to the tropes and themes of our worlds of comics, I have tried to replace those real world influences with ones from our D&D campaign world — the gods, heroes and adventures we created over the course of nearly a decade. Of course, because we were playing Dungeons and Dragons, itself a product of the mishmash of Western mythology and folklore and the pulp fantasies of the mid 20th century, there is certainly a lot of overlap. The goal, in many cases, is to try and find where we can bury the real world trope in its equivalent D&D campaign world trope.

 

It would take far too long to discuss all the details of that overlap. Suffice it to say, we have found a good balance where we are informed by our influences and are able to creatively merge them in telling each other a story about super-powered people beating up other super-powered people. It probably seems a vain pursuit to the non-gamer, but I suppose to the non-writer, crafting a world and the people within that world, and their stories, seems equally vain.