January 10, 2008
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.
- “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String” by Greg Costikyan. This essay revisits his his widely-cited formulation from 2000 (“A story is linear. . . . A game is non-linear”) and comes up with a new formulation (“since a game is a system of constraints, and since if we want a story to emerge from a game we must constrain it in such a way that it does, it is not a priori impossible to imagine constructing a set of constraints that both produces a story and also fosters interesting gameplay”). He draws on examples from tabletop games, computer games, literary novels, and more.
- “From the Basement to the Basic Set: The Early Years of Dungeons & Dragons“ by Erik Mona. The first RPG, and still the most popular, Dungeons & Dragons has an early history that many find puzzling. This essay clears up the confusion, while also pointing out that most RPG gamers’ “understanding of ‘what happens’ in a role-playing game is therefore shaped by how D&D explains these concepts. An analysis of how D&D’s manuals have explained the duties and roles of players throughout the game’s many printings therefore offers a glimpse at the evolution of the role-playing form itself.”
- “Narrative Structure and Creative Tension in Call of Cthulhu“ by Kenneth Hite. Another early RPG, Call of Cthulhu not only remains popular today but continues to support the publication of a rather large selection of adventures. This essay takes a close look both at the structures of the adventures and at the language used to describe the roles played in adventuring over CoC’s decades-long publishing history, connecting them with narrative forms used by Lovecraft, commercial necessity, authorial innovation, and the conservatism of youth.
Next are three shorter contributions outlining specific aspects of innovative RPG publications:
- “On Character Creation in Everway“ by Jonathan Tweet, discussing his innovative free-form, card-based character creation method.
- “On ‘The Haunted House’” by Keith Herber, discussing the wide range of elements from horror fiction combined in a scenario that threatens to drive CoC investigators into madness.
- “My Life with Master: The Architecture of Protagonism” by Paul Czege, describing his RPG’s alternative to traditional approaches, which “fail consistently as engines of story creation from their relentless doubting of the protagonism of the player characters.”
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.”