Matthew Horrigan is a scholar with an academic interest in video and tabletop games. He seldom plays. But he likes to read, hear and think about play, which reminds him of his original discipline, musicology.
Bradley Young is a player and game master (‘GM’). He participates in tabletop role-playing games as much as he can: live; and, these days, online.
This essay emerges from an ongoing series of conversations about role-playing games. These conversations usually happen when Bradley emerges from his room after an online role-playing session, which he describes to Matt, who is usually at the kitchen table writing. Matt then compares Bradley’s experiences to his research. Over time, we have reflected on the role of scholars within the world of tabletop role-play.
The problems of the scholar party
Bradley’s experiences often outstrip scholarly terminology. As his community of players has developed expertise in tabletop role-playing, their concerns have begun to evolve faster than scholarly commentary on them. This disjunction of discourses is the result of an attention economy (see Simon 6): if Bradley devoted as much time to writing as Matt does, Bradley wouldn’t know so much about play, whereas if Matt devoted as much time to play as Bradley does, he wouldn’t produce much writing. For example, Bradley spends many hours each day listening to Friends at the Table, Dimension 20, Not Another D&D Podcast, and Critical Role, all of which inform his gameplay. As with many tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) enthusiasts, Bradley’s play at games is akin to a musician’s play at their instrument: an act of artistic creation predicated on practice and research, which, unlike videogame role-play, tends to incorporate activities scholarly game studies would associate with developers, including storytelling, worldbuilding, and choosing—or even devising—rules.
Matt, meanwhile, is largely immersed in a different world, reading and listening to the words of scholars more than players. As a result of our different activities, we present here the view that academics, avid hobbyists, developers, and others within the world of tabletop role-play have particular strengths and weaknesses, and that those strengths and weaknesses manifest as different types of knowledge, which, at their best, complement each other amid the social world of tabletop role-play.
Below, we note some areas where game studies, or what we call “scholarly game studies” lags behind players’ vernacular discourse, which we call “vernacular game studies.” Scholarly game studies may seem more nuanced. It has a repository of terms that vernacular game studies doesn’t use. Some commonly-cited examples include ludus and paidia (Caillois 13); ergodic text (Aarseth); and the famous “magic circle” (Huizinga 10; Salen and Zimmerman 95). It also offers especially precise definitions of vernacular notions like immersion (Brown and Cairns) and flow (Nacke and Lindley), but this terminological sophistication is not an index of greater insight. Rather, we contend that scholarly and vernacular game studies have different specialties. Vernacular game studies cites and presents gameplay examples far more than concepts, especially in regards to TTRPGs. Scholarly game studies, in contrast, invests more energy in aggregating and consolidating, and is more equipped to shore up themes emergent from an immense body of knowledge accumulated by the community at large through innovative and insightful play.
A familiar methodology for engaging with the knowledge of others, in both game studies and qualitative research generally (e.g. Fine), is ethnography. Anthropologist João Biehl describes letting ethnography get “in the way of theory” by putting aside known concepts in order to perceive occurrences that deviate from them. In practice, such a shift in subject position may not be possible. Tabletop role-play occurs within a feedback network drawing from many specialized tasks, including ethnography, theory, and interpretation and development. We should not assume that all the knowledge feeding into role-play is consonant with academia as a field of professional disposition. It is, in other words, unreasonable to expect scholars to play all the roles. While scholars may be the bards and scribes of the party, and thus occasionally its leaders, we should understand the party to be much larger than ourselves, composed of other characters with perspectives and class proficiencies that immersion in academia tragically separates us from. Perhaps time, tenure, and the ability to indulge long research without publishing may eventually allow some TTRPG scholars to multiclass. In the meantime, scholars are not “hackers” in the sense of Shadowrun’s most famously esoteric role—there are worlds of play currently removed from academic access by the level of specialist commitment required to reach them.
The challenge of chronicling role-play
Bards sometimes build a sense of their culture’s history by preserving it in memorable and incisive chronicles. The task of chronicling is easier done for videogames than TTRPGs. In the first issue of the Journal of Games Criticism, Brendan Keogh postulated that “the academic videogame critic’s goal is to understand how a videogame is engaged with by players to produce meanings and pleasures.” We agree, although we think that some YouTubers (e.g. Caldwell-Gervais; RagnarRox) have been chronicling videogame play with greater influence than many scholars. game studies scholars can catch up to video essays easily, though, by citing them. Citing videos is more precise than citing papers because videos unfold overtime as fixed media, so video events are enumerable using timestamps, whereas page numbers instantiate a less precise quantization of data (i.e., page numbering usually offers about one quantum, one page number, per 300 words). Somewhere between the vernacular field of YouTube video essayists and the scholarly field of game studies, videogames are receiving plenty of analytical attention.
But TTRPGs pose different challenges than videogames. To begin with, there exists a temptation to treat role-play experiences in TTRPGs and videogame RPGs similarly (e.g., First Person Podcast 2:08). But the two, of course, differ. Videogames combine game mechanics with multimedia technology that dynamically represents a virtual world. So, many videogames can have nearly the same mechanics and still be understood as different artworks due to the respective importance of many different art and design departments, which include worldmaking practices like writing and/or recording scripts. In all cases, digital RPGs offer little flexibility in their mechanics when compared with TTRPGs. In contrast, a TTRPG can be as simple as a rulebook and some story prompts. Participants construct on their own what a digital RPG would precompose for them. Narratives in TTRPGs are not only ergodic, procedural, or emergent (McRae), but self-proceduralizing. Regardless of what possibilities computer generation may eventually offer, a game master (GM), in collaboration with players, can imagine innumerably more things than an automated system can procedurally generate. Sometimes, players’ narrative improvisations push a game from one ruleset to another. For example, in season two of the “actual play” podcast Friends at the Table, the party started out playing Mechnoir, then switched to The Sprawl to suit their gameplay, then did a round of Kingdom to give their world a backstory, and ultimately played the podcast’s season finale using Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands (see u/pludlow21). The GM made these choices as the season progressed. It is difficult to say exactly what “the game” becomes in such a case. It is no longer a single commercial entity that players buy into. It involves an evolving set of rules that players agree on.
The wider narrative possibilities of TTRPGs presently contribute to a player culture that prioritizes consent in a way that videogame culture does not. The present and evolving feminist ethics of tabletop role-play are defined in especially sharp relief against a prior and sometimes persistent culture of misogynistic role-play (see Trammell). For example, after GM and Dungeon World cocreator Adam Koebel recently subjected player Elspeth Eastman’s character, Johnny, to a sexual assault by one of his non-player-characters (itmeJP 1:17:26), Eastman and fans responded with outspoken criticism. Within the ethics of his community, which is the wide and interconnected TTRPG community, Koebel’s actions were unacceptable because Eastman had not consented to such a psychologically disturbing attack on Johnny. It was Koebel’s responsibility as GM to seek and respect players’ ongoing consent amid the dynamic narrative of the game. Such an ethical responsibility also applies to players. Some tabletop groups adopt sophisticated safeword procedures (RandomTuesday; Stavropoulos) to protect players from the hazards of “bleed,” or “spillover” from player to character and character to player (Bowman). We hypothesize that emotional bleed figures in player discourse about TTRPGs because a description of events in tabletop role-play may be more psychologically impactful than an analogous event unfolding in a digital RPG. In short, while players’ imaginations play an important role in digital role-play, they are more central to tabletop role-play. In fact, some role-playing games, like Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands and Follow, do not have GMs. Players construct the narrative as a group—thus taking on additional responsibility.
The power of the party scholar
Steve Wilcox’s influential article on “feed-forward scholarship” offered insights that apply not only to game studies but also to the general ecology of relationships between what Pierre Bourdieu theorizes as fields of practice . Per Wilcox, there are, roughly speaking, fields of artistic practice, like game design; and fields with things to say about them, like game studies. Game studies can be feed-forward, influencing the production of future games, or feed-back, commenting on prior ones. In practice, game studies essays often combine aspirations to both.
The distinction between feed-forward and feed-back requires more context than Wilcox gave it. It resembles the distinction between prescription and description. Prescription and description have been much debated, mostly in linguistics, because the politics of prescription have tended to involve forcing language conventions on oppressed groups (Pullum). In many circles, overt prescriptivism is rude, akin to backseat driving. Scholars are therefore not typically in the business of telling game developers what to do. Game studies prescriptions are closer to recommendations. But the parallel between prescriptivism and what we might call “feed-forwardism” has saddled Wilcox’s vision with impracticalities.
Wilcox was candid about scholars’ limitations, stating that game studies researchers “aren’t all programmers and level designers, nor do we need to be. Players and scholars alike can influence the development, reception, and perpetuation of mechanics, trends, and tropes.” Wilcox advocated middle-state publishing, over slow scholarly journals, as a medium scholarly influence. But fast backseat driving is still backseat driving. Slow and fast, the scholarly study of videogames remains primarily a field of interpretation and recommendation. However, TTRPGs offer a solution: in a TTRPG, players and GMs are like developers. Authors of new TTRPG systems usually start out as GMs using prior systems. Sometimes scholars, including those on First Person Scholar‘s production team, do feed-forward into gaming culture by playing and GMing. But becoming deeply involved in the world of tabletop role-play involves labour outside the gaze of commentators focussed on media production or academic promotion. Although such involvement leverages skill with text, it also involves a lot of time taken away from writing, which is the thing we academics must do, lest we perish.
This essay has therefore proposed that the role of the scholar is distinct within the world of tabletop role-play—within the social meta-party, as it may be. Scholars resemble bards in keeping records and providing commentary. But they also resemble clerics, in their beholdenness to another power. What do scholars of tabletop role-play bring back to the altar of the academy that scholars in other fields do not? Do they offer up only the knowledge of another topic, another land journeyed to? Not merely; an adventuring bard acquires a roguish dimension that a court minstrel does not, and a friar traverses territory that a monk could never read of. At the tabletop role-play party, a scholar is neither a preacher, spreading their news throughout the land, nor an inquisitor, assailing informants for data, but rather a bridge between two communities. To the extent that scholars do their jobs well, the walls of the academy become lower and the view over their top becomes clear. The role of player-scholar, then, becomes not the case of an academic or player leading a double life in the name of knowledge, but a role unto itself; and one that, perhaps more than any other, depends on intellectual humility.
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