Between Acting and Narrating: Editors' Introduction to "Tabletop Systems"

Between Acting and Narrating: Editors' Introduction to "Tabletop Systems"


The electronic release of Second Person starts with a number of essays on tabletop role-playing. Most of these consider the entanglement of play and narrative in a variety of game systems, from the highly controlled to the largely open-ended.

In the essay that begins this release, Greg Costikyan elegantly outlines a spectrum of game-story forms - all of which are discussed, sometimes at length, by other contributors to this book. Costikyan, who began his career in tabletop game design before he became a respected designer and scholar of many different types of games, retains a noticeable fondness for the tabletop role-playing game (RPG) form, as do the editors of this collection. Types of RPG Publications: This first release mainly deals with tabletop role-playing, more specifically how innovation in game and narrative design is increasingly moving to a scene of independent designers and publishers. Before we go into detail about the respective contributions, it might be useful to stand still at some of the typical characteristics and history of the form. For each tabletop role-playing game system (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS) there will be one or more books (or at least, pamphlets). Books central to the understanding of the system, which contain the specific rules and mechanics of the game, and which provide at least an overview of the game world, are generally referred to as core rule books. In some cases, there will be one book for the players and a separate one for the gamemaster (as in the Advanced Dungeons & DragonsPlayer’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide). In other cases (e.g., Call of Cthulhu) there will be only one core book per line, though certain sections may be intended for gamemaster eyes only. In still other cases (e.g., Matt Wilson’s PrimeTime Adventures), there may be no part of the book that is kept secret from the players. Sourcebooks provide further elaboration of the game world. This elaboration can take virtually any form, from books discussing advanced rules, to ones providing new areas of the game world for exploration and new characters for potential encounters, to books that provide new classes of characters that can be played. GURPS, a self-proclaimed “generic” system whose rules are designed to be able to accommodate any genre of role-playing (from Wild West to space opera, from epic fantasy to prehistoric man) has released a seemingly uncountable number of source books: GURPS Horror, GURPS Aztecs, GURPS Ice Age, GURPS Illuminati, GURPS Cthulhupunk, GURPS Wild Cards, GURPS Camelot, GURPS High-Tech, GURPS SWAT, GURPS Who’s Who, etc. Scenario books contain one or more pre-designed adventures or storylines for a gamemaster to play with his or her players. These are sometimes called adventure books or variations thereof, and in the early days of D&D were often called modules. It is not uncommon for sourcebooks to contain scenarios in addition to their other content. The trend in mainstream RPG publishing in recent years is to release core books as hardbacks, and other types of books as either hardback or softcover, as determined by profit expectations. This has not always been the case: in the 1980s, there was a preponderance of games released in box sets containing softcover books, pamphlets, maps and other game aids. TSR (D&D Basic and Expert Sets, Gangbusters, Boot Hill) and Pacesetter (Chill, Sandman) released many products in this format. Exceptions and contradictions to the above generalizations can easily be found. RPG publishing could be called (pace collectible card game jargon) an “exception-based” system, wherein the rules exist only to provide a framework for breaking them.

Despite the soft spot that tabletop RPGs occupy in many hearts, at the time of this writing their commercial market is in bad shape. Just a few years ago this was not the case. For several years following industry leader Wizard of the Coast’s release of the Open Gaming License, Wizard of the Coast’s OGL allows any other company to use their proprietary d20 system (used most famously in Dungeons & Dragons), provided they follow certain limitations and give clear acknowledgment to WotC. This produced a huge number of d20 supplements in a very short time, from all manner of publishers, on any number of topics, and helped to further cement WotC as the industry’s leader and d20 as the system of choice for many tabletop role-players. Even after the d20 bust, WotC (a division of Hasbro) remains unrivalled as the 800-pound gorilla of the industry. supplements of all types based on the “d20” game system (as used in the popular RPG Dungeons & Dragons) flooded the market - and found many willing buyers. But before long, much as had happened in the collapse of the collectible card game (CCG) market in the 1990s, the bottom fell out of the d20 market, forcing RPG publishers to diversify or die.

Many surviving publishers responded by radically reducing their output, cutting staff, releasing “boutique” products (e.g., leather-bound, slip-cased editions of previous best-sellers) or focusing production on other types of games (often expensive board games).

This means that much of the most interesting work currently being done in tabletop RPGs is in the “indie RPG” movement, of which Ron Edwards of The Forge is the leading exponent. Edwards (Sorcerer, Trollbabe), Paul Czege (My Life with Master), Annie Rush (The Secret Lives of Gingerbread Men), Jared Sorensen (Lacuna), Matt Snyder (Dust Devils), John Wick (Schauermärchen), and many others have produced highly respected, innovative RPGs published independently by the authors without the benefit of traditional distribution channels. In his contribution, Czege discusses some of the indie RPG philosophy as it pertains to his design decisions for My Life with Master.

Web options, PDF, and recent advances in Print-On-Demand (POD) technologies have lowered the barrier to entry for aspiring RPG designers. And established ones as well: Rebecca Borgstrom has released POD versions of some of her Hitherby Dragons fiction - see link below. Many RPGs are available (sometimes exclusively) as PDF downloads from the author’s sites or through small web-based companies such as Wicked Dead RPGs or Indie Press Revolution. Within these channels, innovative publishing models are developing. For example, Dennis Detwiller, co-creator of Delta Green, has released new RPG material using the “ransom model.” In these cases a product is released (as a PDF) only if visitors to his web site donate enough money in advance to finance its completion.

Naturally there are still the big players. Dungeons & Dragons is more popular than ever, and White Wolf’s World of Darkness line runs a respectable second in industry popularity. In their contributions, Erik Mona and Will Hindmarch give overviews of the early history of D&D and White Wolf’s Storyteller system, respectively. Currently only Steve Jackson’s Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS) can claim to be equally well-known, although there are any number of notable other systems. Terminology: Naturally, nearly all game systems have their own specific terminology. That said, certain terms have common currency. LARP stands for a live-action role-playing game, in which players physically, and socially, act out their characters’ roles (e.g., at a convention, or at a weekly gathering at a friend’s house). They are not centered around the tabletop, and it can be argued that they are closer in form to improvisational theater than to their RPG cousins. LARPs are generally more focused on physical role-playing and storytelling rather than a complex system of game mechanics (there are usually no dice, for example); this transparency allows for a lower barrier to entry, and as a consequence LARP player groups tend to be larger than tabletop groups. Although LARPs are distinct from tabletop games, some systems (notably Vampire: The Masquerade) support both tabletop and LARP play. A PC is a Player Character, an in-game character played by one of the players. An NPC is a Non-Player Character. In tabletop RPGs, NPCs are played by the gamemaster. In video RPGs, NPCs are designed by the programmers and their actions executed by the game system. Gamemaster (also Game Master; referee; storyteller; in D&D, Dungeon Master; and innumerable other terms). A player designated to administer the rules, and run the game world and NPCs; in contrast to the other players, who usually only play one character or a small number of characters and have no more agency in the game world than that provided to their characters. Tabletop dice come in more varieties than the usual six-sided. Game rules often refer to them as d4, d6, d8, d10, and d20 - in reference to the number of sides for each die. It is also not uncommon to use multiple dice to determine some value, which can also be preceded by “d.” For example, “d100” (also called “percentile dice”) usually refers to the process of rolling two 10-sided dice together to generate a random number between 1 and 100. Some games use “dice pools” or other methods of combining the random dice-generated numbers, and other games (e.g., Eric Wujcik’s Amber Diceless) eschew randomness altogether.

Ken Hite contributes a piece about one of these others, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu (CoC) line. CoC has nothing like the player base of D&D, but is still one of the longest-running and most respected lines in the industry. Hite’s essay is accompanied by a short piece by one of Call of Cthulhu’s most accomplished designers, Keith Herber, discussing the unusual structure of his Call of Cthulhu scenario, “The Haunted House.” Tolkien and Lovecraft: The influence of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (1892 - 1973) The Lord of the Rings (LotR) on the works discussed in this book cannot be overestimated. The series was released in three hardback volumes in the United States in 1954 and 1955, and received a popular BBC radio adaptation in 1956, but did not truly capture the public’s imagination until a paperback edition appeared in 1965. With Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series, Fritz Lieber’s Lankhmar stories, Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, and the popular sword-and-sorcery stories best exemplified by Robert E. Howard’s Conan, LotR strongly influenced the development of Dungeons & Dragons. D&D itself had a notable influence on William Crowther’s computer text adventure, Colossal Cave. LotR’s quest structure can be detected in World of Warcraft as well as any number of other games. This influence will no doubt continue well into the foreseeable future, with the renewed popularity generated by Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. A less obvious, but no less important, aesthetic influence on the playable media described in Second Person is the work of Rhode Island weird fiction author, H. P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937). Lovecraft’s writing was virtually unknown during his lifetime, except to a small circle of admirers and fans of pulp magazines (notably Weird Tales), but in the decades since his death, his influence has crept far into popular culture. Aspiring occultists of the 1960s and 1970s spent many hours in vain searching for a copy of the infamous Necronomicon, not realizing that the existence of the book was a fiction created by Lovecraft. (Naturally hoaxsters and charlatans have since published quite a few Necronomicons, to take advantage of this fact.) Lovecraft’s posthumous literary influence is well-attested; authors such as Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, Brian Lumley, T. E. D. Klein, and Thomas Ligotti, among others, have strong Lovecraftian elements in much of their work. Lovecraft’s influence can be detected in films (In the Mouth of Madness) and television (the underlying cosmology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Hobby game shops sell cuddly plush versions of Lovecraft’s malign alien entity Cthulhu. In addition to the Call of Cthulhu RPG and CCG, Lovecraft’s work has formed the basis for board games (Arkham Horror, The Hills Rise Wild!), video games (Dark Corners of the Earth, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem) and even a rock band (The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets - see link below) and a neo-silent film (the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s The Call of Cthulhu - see link below). It is beyond the scope of this sidenote to go into detail about Lovecraft’s work and the work of the other authors that have contributed to what has become known as the “Cthulhu Mythos” genre. But, like the sanity-destroying glimpses of the unknown that so often spell the ruin of Lovecraft’s protagonists, you will find hints and allusions to it throughout this book.

It should be noted that the big companies do continue to support a certain amount of innovation. Along these lines, Rebecca Borgstrom contributes a piece about her work for White Wolf’s Exalted line, The Fair Folk. Her analysis is informed by both her work in the tabletop RPG field and her background as a computer scientist. Jonathan Tweet discusses the unique character creation system in his RPG, Everway, which was first published by Wizards of the Coast and is now supported by an indie community.

In James Wallis’s essay, the author provides a broad overview of several different types of non-RPG tabletop storytelling games, including his own Once Upon a Time and Youdunnit (and one arguable RPG: The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen). In the process, he outlines a method for future storytelling game design.

Eric Lang (writing with one of this volume’s editors) and Bruno Faidutti contribute pieces about games that fall on the extreme edge of our book’s subject matter: Lang discusses two of his collectible card games (A Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu) and Faidutti discusses his board game Mystery of the Abbey. All of these games are based explicitly on works of fiction: George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the works of H. P. Lovecraft and other contributors to the “Cthulhu Mythos,” and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Lang’s essay (and Kevin Wilson’s) also discusses the market considerations that enter into the creation and publication of a game - a topic of great interest in the hobby games industry and one that has a discernable effect on what games are actually produced. Faidutti touches on this point as well in a brief sidebar.

Kevin Wilson writes about two of his board games as well: Arkham Horror and Doom: The Board Game. Wilson adapted both of these games from other sources: Arkham Horror from Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG and Richard Launius’s original board game design, and Doom from the popular series of computer games. In his essay, Wilson sketches some of the methods he used to successfully adapt these properties into the board game format.

Eric Zimmerman and Kim Newman discuss two unusual works of fiction (Zimmerman’s is perhaps as much “book art” as “fiction”): Life in the Garden and Life’s Lottery. Life’s Lottery can be seen as a self-conscious updating of the Choose Your Own Adventure form, and Life in the Garden is part of a genre of recombinable fictions that also includes projects such as Robert Coover’s “Heart Suit” and Helen Thorington’s Solitaire (discussed elsewhere in this volume).

Zimmerman and Newman’s pieces differ from the others in this section, in that they focus on the individual reading experience. Rather than, as with most RPGs, serving as a structure for harnessing creativity between players, these are unusual structures for relatively traditional artistic experiences. Not only do they focus audience experience on the individual appreciation of a pre-created work, they are also entirely pre-authored. The audience orders or operates their elements, but no new elements are introduced at the time of audience experience. Just this, as it turns out, can generate a rich tapestry of possible experiences. In this regard they serve as a good transition to our second section, which focuses on attempts to use the procedural power of the computer for such purposes.


Hitherby Dragons

The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets

The Call of Cthulhu