The Shifting Definitions of Roleplaying

The Elusive Shift, published as part of MIT Press’s Game Histories range, can be seen as Jon Peterson’s followup to Playing At the World, picking up on some subjects alluded to in there, expounding on them further, and taking the discussion forwards.

Playing At the World was focused on the creation of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules – touching on the history of wargames leading up to it, the particular innovations by Dave Arneson which led to the Blackmoor campaign, the transmission of those ideas to Gary Gygax (whose Greyhawk would be the home of further innovation and refinement), the honing of the concepts into a sellable product, and the immediate reception of that product by both the existing wargame scene and a chunk of the SF/fantasy fandom of the era, who by coming to the game without the sort of assumptions both its designers and the existing wargame audience shared ended up spurring its evolution in new directions.

The Elusive Shift picks up that latter aspect as its starting point, in order to explore how the nascent hobby groped to find a definition of itself and what the purpose of play actually was. OD&D, of course, didn’t bill itself as an RPG – it called itself a wargame – but audiences quickly decided it was a different sort of beast from the standard wargame. Various terms for this new flavour of game were aired – “adventure game”, “FRP” (Fantasy Role-Playing), and “role-playing game”; eventually, the latter won out. But before it did so, and even in the immediate aftermath of it becoming a consensus term, the definition of what role-playing was, and what it meant to make a “game” of role-playing, remained the subject of intense debate.

As Peterson illustrates. if you look at the games published in the 1970s and early 1980s you can detect the influence of that debate here and there, but if you want the meat of the discussion, you need to look at the fanzines, APAs, and magazines where the real debate took place in those pre-Internet times. This poses a challenge for researchers because whilst towards the end of the time period Peterson focuses on here the debate was picked up by widely-distributed professional magazines such as Dragon, Different Worlds, and White Dwarf, the entirety of the discussion before the advent of those periodicals (and a good chunk of it after) took place in APAs and fanzines with much spottier distribution and more difficulty in finding archival copies. The Alarums & Excursions back catalogue has been issued in PDF, but a good chunk of the other fanzines of the era are much trickier to consult.

This, then, is what makes a book like The Elusive Shift by Peterson so interesting – Peterson has done the legwork to look up these sources in order to provide an overview of the debate raging in their pages (as it pertains to the themes of the book, at least) which it would otherwise not be viable for many people to achieve. What he discovers is eye-opening.

Inevitably, D&D ends up somewhat central to the discussion – after all, to one extent or another all RPGs in this generation are written as responses to OD&D to at least a certain extent – but Peterson is able to highlight interesting steps forward in a range of 1970s games, including some which I have never had the chance to read myself and seem as rare as hen’s teeth in the wild, and a few I outright hadn’t heard of before. When it comes to stuff I’ve covered here, Peterson finds points of note in the likes of Tunnels & Trolls, Villains & Vigilantes, Traveller, Bushido, Champions, Empire of the Petal Throne, Metamorphosis Alpha, Chivalry & Sorcery, Bunnies & Burrows, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and The Fantasy Trip.

This last one is an interesting example. From a modern-day perspective, with our current understanding of RPGs are, you could definitely make the argument that The Fantasy Trip only really became an RPG in 1980, when In the Labyrinth was published; though Melee and Wizard had been out since 1977, they just provided a magic system and a combat system, sufficient to do little wargamey skirmishes or play solo adventures but not really enough to handle the sort of action you’d want in a full-blown roleplaying campaign.

(Another example of this sort of thing which Peterson doesn’t touch on, I think because it originates slightly after the book’s area of focus, is Rolemaster; ICE marketed Arms Law and Spell Law as alternative combat and magic systems to bolt onto your RPG of choice, which is in keeping with the sort of mixing-and-matching of game mechanics which Peterson documents as being rife at the time, and one can argue that Rolemaster only really became an independent system of its own when 1982’s Character Law provided character generation and advancement rules – or, if you’re feeling especially hardline, when 1984’s Campaign Law provided guidelines on running campaigns.)

The thing is, from a 1970s perspective the question of whether Melee on its own constituted a role-playing game or not was a trickier question – the definition of the field hadn’t quite settled yet. In the process of settling it, the little world of the fanzines played out in a primordial form a lot of the sort of debates on RPG theory which would later be recapitulated over and over again, whether on Usenet in the 1990s or on the Forge in the mid-2000s.

As Peterson notes, part of the reason for the same arguments being repeated is because of poor institutional memory – in his epilogue, he notes how Robin Laws, Jonathan Tweet, and Mark Rein-Hagen popped up in the pages of Alarums & Excursions, around the time when Ars Magica was coming to fruition, and in particular how they in their own way opened up a new era of RPG theory discussion but would admit to not having access to early issues of Alarums, and thus not being completely caught up on the previous eras of discussion. However, as Peterson also argues, there’s another reason RPG theory seems to keep rehashing the same debates, which is that there’s essential tensions at the heart of the format which do not admit to a single authoritative solution.

Though the Forge is well outside the scope of Peterson’s book, it is worth considering how Ron Edwards shut down the RPG theory discussion on that forum when he declared that the theory was “complete”. Many people – including me – consider that a rather risible thing to say, because the discussion of particular artforms or game design principles and the theory behind them can never be “complete” – it’s like saying that you’ve hit the “end of music” or that you’ve “finished literature”.

However, I can see how the discussion could seem complete from Edwards’ perspective. Edwards’ comments towards the end of the lifetime of the Forge – including those in which he laid out his rather obnoxious “brain damage” comments – made it pretty clear that he’d concluded that traditional RPGs were not where his fun was actually to be founds (save in momentary token flashes), and that he felt that it would be far better to step outside of the RPG design space altogether rather than relying on a structure which wasn’t giving him what he wanted. Forge theory, in unpacking the conceptual structure of a game session and examining the motivations for play in the form of the “Creative Agendas”, ended up defining (in Ron’s eyes) the fun he was after, diagnosing why other games weren’t delivering it, and suggesting a design space to aim for which might deliver it.

The particular way the Forge cut the Creative Agenda pie into 3 was novel to it. (Well, novelish, since it shows a lot of influence of the Threefold Model, to the point where all the category names are the same except that the broad church of Dramatism was redefined much more narrowly as What-Ron-Actually-Wants-ism Narrativism.) However, the basic approach of diagnosing a set of motivations for play, considering how different games deliver from the perspective of different motivations (or combinations of motivations, where these motives are not mutually destructive), and assessing where there might be a fruitful design space which is currently being underserved all plays out in these early discussions, as Peterson illustrates.

Since these debates are cyclical and do not seem to admit to any definitive conclusion – despite Ron Edwards’ claims of a “complete” theory – does this mean they are pointless? I would say not, and indeed I don’t think Peterson would either. Peterson identifies two games of 1981 – Champions and Call of Cthulhu – as being major contributions to the RPG field. So far, so uncontroversial – after all, they were big commercial successes at the time and both enjoyed impressive longevity; Call of Cthulhu is a big deal to this day, and whilst Champions is no longer the market leader it once was, it maintained a strong footing in the superhero RPG genre for a good long time, and when one considers how many RPGs (some of which are considered in this very book!) are basically flash-in-the-pan affairs which come and go in short order, then that makes Champion a success story by any measure.

However, Peterson goes on to argue that the game mechanical inventions which people often associate with them – whether this be the sanity system of Call of Cthulhu or the superpower creation system of Champions – were not in and of themselves all that original, with prior precedents existing for both of them. What really made both games stand apart, in Peterson’s view, is not in their invention of game mechanics, but in their skilled selection of game mechanics to support the specific experiences they were looking for, whether experiences be four-colour superheroics with all the wild invention of the comics or eldritch investigation into forbidden lore with overtones of nihilistic apocalypticism.

(Another interesting example the book turns up is how the execution of early Chivalry & Sorcery is almost entirely antithetical to Ed Simbalist’s declared preferences for a highly story-oriented, character-focused sort of roleplaying; Peterson argues that Chivalry & Sorcery is the way it is simply because whilst Simbalist might have genuinely had the preferences he claimed to have, system innovations to support those preferences had not yet come about.)

And what made it possible to do that, Peterson argues, is the bedrock of theory and discussion that they had to build on. Brian Eno is credited with a quip about how very few people bought the Velvet Underground’s first album when it was originally released, but all of them went on to start a band. Regardless of how true that is of The Velvet Underground & Nico, a similar idea is sort of true of OD&D; the original booklets are sufficiently vague that everyone who tried to run the game pretty much had to become a game designer, at least to the extent of making decisions about how to implement it. As Peterson illustrates here, whether or not the players even got to make their own dice rolls in actual play was ambiguous, and a point of discussion.

This made a wide-ranging dissection and deconstruction of the game by fans inevitable, and made it possible to construct new approaches to game design out of that. None of these offered a One True Way to resolve the tensions inherent within OD&D – or in the “role-playing game” concept which solidified in its wake – but plenty of these suggested fruitful directions for subsequent designs to explore, and that’s absolutely what Champions and Call of Cthulhu did.

One can argue that much the same ended up happening with the Forge – the GNS theorists identified a fertile territory, a Creative Agenda poorly served by the market to date, and set about trying to till that soil. Many of the games that tried it were flash-in-the-pan affairs with no more longevity than, say, Bifrost or Realm of Yolmi. (Not heard of them? Exactly.) However, Forge veteran D. Vincent Baker would eventually cook up Apocalypse World, and the Powered By the Apocalypse system has become the new hotness in the field, in part because of Baker’s ability to really critically look at the structure of RPGs and come up with a new way of approaching the activity and a new vocabulary for describing it, a vocabulary which has propagated throughout the PbtA ecosystem. You don’t get to do that unless you have given a good hard think to a lot of these issues.

Of course, the danger with such cyclical discussions is that they risk wasting a lot of time reinventing the wheel, with individuals who aren’t aware of how the last spin around the merry-go-round went simply restating ideas which have been old hat. There’s a difference between going in a circle and going in a spiral; in both cases you’re rotating around a central point you never reach, but in the former case once you’ve gone 360 degrees you just end up back where you were, in the latter you’ve moved on a bit. A book like The Elusive Shift not only documents where we have been, but also makes it much more likely that later discussions along these lines will end up moving forwards – in other words, it will help us to continue advancing our spiral, rather than just continuing in a circle.

Is it impossible to still make interesting, useful, substantial contributions to RPG discussion without reading The Elusive Shift – or the massed stacks of fanzine discussions that Peterson has summarised in digestible form for us here? Of course not – Laws, Tweet, and Rein-Hagen didn’t and they kicked off a revolution in game design which yielded some of the biggest games of the 1990s. However, if someone in the discussion has read this book, then they can at least flag where the discussion’s started moving in a direction that has been explored before and summarise what happened the first time the hobby went down that side passage. That makes it more likely that later discussions will find something new to explore. Peterson may be a little rueful about the lack of institutional memory in the field, but his books are doing a damn good job of filling the gap.

6 thoughts on “The Shifting Definitions of Roleplaying

  1. dysjunct

    Re: The Forge and “complete”

    I was mostly a lurker at the Forge, but I’ve seen multiple people now saying that Ron shut down discussion of GNS theory. That doesn’t match my recollection at all. I recall him shutting down abstract discussion of theory, outside of actual play of a game. I remember it vividly because I thought it was such a very positive move away from the wankery of theory ungrounded in actual experience. Of course memory is very unreliable, so I went looking in the archives briefly and couldn’t find much.

    At any rate, it was all a long time ago and the hobby seems to have transitioned from “lacking institutional memory because only 30 mimeographed zines were made” to “lacking institutional memory because websites disappear.”

    (And as long as I’m here, thanks for the blog, I read and enjoy every entry!}

    1. It was certainly presented that way… But at the same time Ron was saying that, he was also saying that the framework the Forge had made was the best yet, and even if it was deeply flawed there was no other suitable framework for discussion, so the abstract discussion of RPG theory had served its purpose and could stop. (See this post for his statement on that:

      So on the face of it you are right, but in practice he was certainly expressing the view that the framework that was developed there was as good as it was going to get (implicitly creating an expectation that discussion would use said framework), that he considered any other extant framework to be inferior (implicitly discouraging the use of other frameworks), and that if others wanted to develop other frameworks, they should do it off-site (thus limiting said alternate takes’ potential influence on Forge discussion).

      I feel that could only be to the detriment of actual play discussion.

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