Defining Community in Role-playing Games

4-13

Phantasy

February 28, 2019

While the rest of United States was recovering from the war in Vietnam, race riots and a presidential impeachment, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson spent the 1970s slowly morphing old-school wargames into new high-fantasy settings. [1]  While these beta versions of Dungeons and Dragons remained largely tactical in nature, it wasn’t long before Arneson yearned for new ways of playing. In late 1976, Arneson left Gygax and Tactical Studies Rules (the original Dungeons and Dragons publishing company) to begin developing other game systems because, “[the players] enjoyed the role-playing instead of hacking and slashing the monsters.” [2]

This seemingly irreconcilable chasm between the tactical and dramatic aspects of gaming remained a key talking point amongst game developers through the early aughts. [3] The Forge, a popular website featuring discussions, articles and reviews of independent games, became a host of theoretical discourse and filled a necessary role in any community: a place to debate, discuss and create a shared working language. Perhaps one of the most influential works to be featured on the website is Ron Edwards’ 2001 essay “GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory,” where he states outright: “My goal in writing this is to provide vocabulary and perspective that enable people to articulate what they want and like out of [role-playing]. . .” [4]

Like a Web 2.0 Quatremère de Quincy, Edwards sets up a loose typology for methods of role-playing which he titles, “GNS” (shorthand for Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism). Defining each type: the Gamist model is “expressed by competition among participants (the real people); it includes victory and loss conditions for characters.” The Narrativist model is “expressed by the creation, via role-playing, of a story with a recognizable theme,” and the Simulationist model is “greatly concerned with the internal logic and experiential consistency” of the game world. [5] Unlike architectural typologies, these categories are not meant to be applied to the design of games but instead to the decisions the players make. For Edwards, these terms are meant to help role-players reflect and approach the game with a focused idea of what they want from the activity—i.e. for Narrativists to group with other Narrativists and so on. In Edwards’s opinion, all players make decisions through these lenses, so explicitly defining them can aide in crafting a more rewarding gaming group.

A second part of Edwards’ gaming theory, Stance, steps back from the players to focus on defining the frame through which their decisions are made. Stance, “defined as how a person arrives at decisions for an imaginary character’s actions,” [6] is about the players’ relationship to their characters. The player may be an Actor who embodies their character to make decisions, an Author who controls their character according to their personal whims, or a Director who shapes the world around their character to achieve the ends they seek. Stance isn’t meant to pair inexorably with a given GNS type (although Edwards does note that Author Stance and Narrativism often coincide). Stance is instead a way of classifying play almost after the fact, for reflection on your play and how you approach certain circumstances.

The early theorizing of The Forge—and this is an unfortunately small sampling of the work being done at the time—is representative of a community articulating its voice and we can view these essays as analogous to the work done by French Enlightenment thinkers to define architecture as a discipline. Much like that theory, the written work published on The Forge changed the role-playing game landscape. Upon closer inspection of The Forge’s footnotes, it becomes clear that the same authors responsible for penning gaming typologies are also involved in shaping the way games are developed. For example, Ron Edward’s writing partner, D. Vincent Baker, is also responsible for Apocalypse World, [7] a paradigm-shifting platform for accessible Narrativist gaming, released in 2010 with Meguey Baker. [8] Like Dungeons and Dragons, the Apocalypse World engine has catalyzed a massive restructuring of role-playing games—whether they’re dungeon divers, sparring wrestlers, or teenage monsters, many of today’s players use a framework “powered by the apocalypse.”

Along with simplification, accessibility and diversity in game design, the expanded theory of The Forge has allowed the tabletop role-playing game community to flourish. My aim is not to give credit to the diversification of the community to the theory of the early aughts—to do that would be to erase serious work by marginalized persons—but to acknowledge the work as a component in the modernization of rulesets. As certain recent events have shown, there is still plenty of work to be done on the social aspects of gaming culture, and thankfully, many qualified people are doing it. One example of that work, in the form of a game, is Thorny Games’ Dialect: A Game About Language and How It Dies. Dialect is a system for players to act as an isolated community creating, changing and eventually losing their own language. As Kathryn Hymes, co-author of Dialect, wrote in an interview for Waypoint, “Language. . .is powerful—it’s how we interact with each other. . . It is one of the most basic ways that groups form communal identity.” [9] In her words, and those of Dialect co-author Hakan Seyalioglu, “The first step of any game is creating our community.” [10]

1. For a real history of the beginnings of the hobby, see: Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World (Unreason Press, 2012).
2. “Interview with Dave Arneson” in Pegasus #1 (1981), accessed February 13, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20090321222949/http://www.judgesguild.net/guildhall/pegasus/pegasus_01/interview.shtml.
3. And unfortunately skipping a massive part of history, including the introduction of different genres such as sci-fi with Traveller (1979), cyberpunk with Cyberpunk 2020 (1988) and Shadowrun (1989), and gothic horror with White Wolf’s Vampire the Masquerade (1991), as well as many others.
4. Ron Edwards, “GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory,” The Forge (2001): Introduction, accessed February 13, 2019, http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1/.
5. Ron Edwards, “GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory,” The Forge (2001): GNS, accessed February 13, 2019, http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/3/.
6. Ron Edwards, “GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory,” The Forge (2001): Stance, accessed February 13, 2019, http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/4/.
7. Baker also created the independent game kill puppies for satan, which, as proclaimed by Ron Edwards, “is to role-playing what Howl, by Alan Ginsberg, is to poetry.”
8. Key mechanical changes involved the reduction of different dice types from seven, in Dungeons & Dragons, down to two six-sided die; the introduction of combat “clocks,” which allow combat to be more cinematic and less tactical; and the streamlining of certain concepts, such as ammunition counting, for dramatic purposes.
9. Alex Roberts, “Playing the Birth and Death of Language in ‘Dialect’,” Waypoint (2017), accessed February 13, 2019. https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/kb4w5n/playing-the-birth-and-death-of-language-in-dialect.
10. “Dialect,” Thorny Games, accessed February 13, 2019, https://thornygames.com/pages/dialect.