January 10, 2008

Taking Tabletop Seriously: Second Person part 1

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 9:38 am

While in game studies we often reference tabletop role-playing games — especially Dungeons & Dragons — there are few academic press publications that take them seriously, and much of the discussion situates tabletop games as computer game incunabula. Pat Harrigan and I decided to take a different approach with Second Person, inviting a range of RPG practitioners and theorists to look carefully at tabletop structures, experiences, and histories, with or without reference to their digital counterparts.

We’re very happy with the results — and now I’m happy to announce that these essays are becoming part of the First Person thread on electronic book review. This not only makes them publicly available, but also brings them into ebr’s network of ripostes, glosses, enfoldings, and so on. We’ll be adding the essays to ebr over time, this is only the first release, and I’m excited to see that a couple thought-provoking ripostes are already present.

This release begins with our overall Second Person introduction and an introduction to round one of Tabletop Systems. There are also three full-length essays:

Next are three shorter contributions outlining specific aspects of innovative RPG publications:

Finally, the two ripostes are “Playing with the Mythos” by Van Leavenworth and “Limiting the Creative Agenda: Restrictive Assumptions In Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu by David Alger. The first of these is a response to Hite’s essay, arguing that “character and open-ended play styles have been made insignificant in CoC because they are secondary to the importance of the [Lovecraft] Mythos.” The second, responding to Herber’s contribution, argues that “Cthulhu is more gamist [rather than simulationist or narrativist] than it needs to be (or indeed wants to be) and The Haunted House scenario falls into the same trap.”

4 Responses to “Taking Tabletop Seriously: Second Person part 1”


  1. noah Says:

    I’ve had a couple off-blog queries about how people submit ripostes to ebr. So I checked with the editors, who wrote:

    ripostes have been received the same way as any essay: they can go to any ebr editor, to a thread editor, or to the editors [at] electronicbookreview [dot] com. Once the editors have read and approved a riposte, we send the text to either Stef or Ben for markup.

    I hope some GTxA readers will take up this form of response, in dialogue with the ebr editors, in addition to any fast-moving blog responses.

  2. Klaude Thomas Says:

    Greg’s article is excellent as one would expect. He does his analysis along a good axis: systemic/narrative stages of integration. Another move we can make to further this analytical effort is to find out what games and stories are both doing, and see if that tells us anthing. That is to say, apply a functional view.

    Let’s say that humans find useful some things: experiences, explanatory modes, learning analogies. Let’s also say that I’m prepared to assume that liking something implies an evolved taste for it’s usefulness, while also being prepared to concede that such tastes can later go off on their own in sophisticated creatures and be sought out just for the pleasure in them.

    So linear narratives did, and still do, all that stuff. A film gives you experiences – to keep this short you’re asked to make up your own examples – and of course a film, or heck a pretty picture, is a mode of explanation about something. Jason kills the chicks who shag out of wedlock. Could there be a moral in that somewhere?

    So there’s kind of a learning point to that stuff in terms of explanation or discourse, but let’s not forget that there’s also specific learning in terms of ‘I read about it and here’s how you tie a fly for fishing’. I used the gunnery simulator and gosh darn if I don’t have a better idea now of how to load the 12′ guns on a DD.

    Given these purposeful functions (purpose in this case not at all implying individually conscious intention) it isn’t surprising that games want to integrate with narratives. Hell, they’re steps along the evolutionary path for one and the same cultural toolset. Dynamical and systemic is in abstract ‘better’ than linear and static, because the world we’re trying hard to explain is dynamical. Stories have beginnings and endings. Right? Doesn’t that suggest that our Universe better have those same features? Uh…

    So just as complex numbers are ‘better’ for describing and predicting our dynamical world than linear numbers are, it’s not surprising good analysis starts to come down in the affirmative on whether games and stories should mix. It’s a bit like we’re wondering whether we are allowed to use our new blender when that old whisk we’ve got is still quite good for beating eggs. Okay, let’s say you can use either, or mix them. Hmm, I broke my analogy, but you get the concept.

    If there’s an argument, it should be about advancing our craft with system making, because our weakness with games is basically our weakness at making them. We’re not habituated at knowing how complex non-linear systems will play out, just as most people don’t learn quarternion mathematics. Games are going to be more powerful modes of explanation, but not yet. It takes a lot of time and effort to, in a game sense, do something really banal like make a man walk down a street. We forget how much time we spent making up and advancing our use of words. Reflect on how easily I make my man turn down an alley, light a cigarette, and shoot himself in the head. Try making that vignette into a game using less than 100 keystrokes.

    It’s late and I don’t want to get into all the aspects of this, but just illuminate it a little. Hopefully you get the picture.

    -Klaude Thomas

  3. noah Says:

    Klaude, thanks for the thoughtful response. Have you written up a fuller treatment of these ideas anywhere?

    There are also some responses on Hite’s blog, including his thoughts on Leavenworth’s riposte (“so another beautiful example of theory founders on the foam boulders of experience”) and a few questions and thoughts from his readers. I’ll be keeping tabs on the conversation there, as well as any that develop on Costikyan’s blog, Czege’s blog, or the Yog-Sothoth forums.

  4. Grand Text Auto » Tabletop Systems Continued: Second Person part 2 Says:

    [...] I mentioned in my previous post on this topic, one of the goals that Pat Harrigan and I had for Second Person was to provide a set [...]

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