My Games

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Tabletop RPGs as Performance Art

I've got another very incomplete post drafted, didn't get much sleep last night, haven't posted in a while, and had this idea in the meantime. Been really caught up in some work stuff and trying to maintain progress on MRD and push through all the hardest parts. It's where working on the book feels like work, but that's ok, I knew what I was signing myself up for. (MRD being my kickstarted game Maximum Recursion Depth)

So there's all the critical theory stuff people have with TTRPGs like GNS or "does system matter?" and tl;dr few if anybody discussing these theories is making any effort to operationalize their definitions, formalize their hypotheses mathematically, and test them empirically or through some kind of modeling, so at best they're interesting reads and interesting conversations, and at worst their toxic or attract toxic people.

So I will attempt to define my terms, but this is me just talking off the cuff, this isn't good science, and I really have no interest in hearing your bad-faith nitpicks, but would welcome any genuine comments.

All of that being said, I've been thinking about what I want out of games; how I design a setting, or campaign, or even a game itself, and what my interests are as a player, and what I expect from my players, and what they expect from me, etc.

Broadly, it seems like games fall into two camps. There are the "storygames", that are more about character conflict/interaction, and collaboratively telling a story within the confines of a genre. Then there are the "gamey" games, which can be the games that are more tactical and incorporate almost wargame-like mechanics like D&D 3.+, or games that are about resource management, puzzles, and problem-solving like OSR. And what I've struggled with, is that neither of those really satisfy me. 

In some ways, I lean towards the collaborative storytelling, but more so in the sense of worldbuilding than character interaction per se. Also, I don't like how those kinds of systems constrain genre because I don't like to operate within genre. I understand the logic of it- by constraining the game mechanic space to a particular genre, you can leverage that to do some mechanically interesting things within that genre, but that's just not what I want.

So mechanically I prefer games like OSR; rules-light, modular, rulings over rules, can be abstracted away from genre fairly easily. However, I'm not necessarily into the resource management or even puzzle / problem-solving stuff that most OSR people are into. I don't like deadliness for the sake of deadliness, and I don't think things need to be perfectly balanced, but it sucks when random rolls lead to one player being less capable than others. You might think as a software engineer I'd be attracted to the logic puzzles and problem-solving stuff, or to the crunchier theory-crafting tactical stuff of D&D 3.+, but honestly, I get enough of that in my work life, and even if I wanted more, I'd rather get it out of a videogame. I can understand how tabletop RPGs can be uniquely suited for puzzles / problem-solving in particular, but it just doesn't appeal to me.

And what I've started realizing, that I don't know if I've seen anyone formalize in quite this way, is that I like tabletop RPG as performance art. I like to build worlds that throw a million wild ideas at you a minute, that don't always make sense right away, or sometimes ever, but you just have to sort of be along for the ride. I like to break the rules, break expectations, do stuff that's surprising. It's still problem-solving, but less so in the sense of resource management and logic puzzles, and more so in, how do I confront this weird and inexplicable thing? How do I come to understand the rules of this world, and what do I do when they change? It's a Multi-Armed Bandit Problem. It's art, if I may be so pretentious; its very existence is the challenge. It's art when you read it, it's performance art when you try to run it, or when you play in it. It's those interactions between a prospective GM trying to interpret my ideas and filter it through their own sensibilities, and then any players interacting with the setting as presented by myself or another GM.

I had a good conversation last night on the #mrd channel of the NSR Discord Server.

I discussed how to some extent I think of my worldbuilding / GMing style as being like David Lynch, or how I think of continuity in a comic book sense: I like to imagine how a writer comes up with an idea, and then later another writer does something that contradicts the first writer, and then later a third writer bends over backward to try to make sense of the continuity error, and then later still a fourth writer just says fuck it and upends the whole thing. I think I've talked about this before in the context of mythologies, or Lovecraft, but it's these idiosyncrasies, these inconsistencies, that I think make these worlds interesting and authentic.

My favorite moments as a GM are when I make players go "woah...", or "wait, what?". I understand that that's not going to be for everyone, and it makes it especially difficult as I write MRD and try to convey what it is, or at least what I intend it to be. I think other people can run it more straight, taking the premise on-face. Some people might even be disappointed in exactly how far I veer from that initial premise (I think I've been clear about this, but it is definitely not a game about Chinese or Buddhist mythology per se). I can only do so much about that, but I at least want people to be able to read it and feel like it is an effective version of what it was intended to be.

As an example, here's briefly one thing that has happened over the last several sessions of my campaign: I started the players off on a Poltergeist Investigation. I just dropped them in and played it off as a GM fiat kind of thing. I never told them who started them on the investigation, or why.

They never asked.

The next session, I do this trippy thing where I start them off in a different place and some weird stuff happens, only for them then to go back to where they were at the end of the previous session.

I thought this would get them to rethink the previous session but they did not.

It was only towards the end of the last session, that they finally asked how the whole thing had started, and they still don't know, but at least now they know that they don't know. But they're so embroiled in it now, they don't even have time yet to consider how it all started.

Basically, I leveraged their willingness to go along with the GM fiat, to create a genuinely psychedelic moment. It didn't remove their agency, it didn't violate any preconceived notions about the setting, but it did, I suppose, violate their expectations as players in a game.

On the whole, my players know at this point to expect this kind of stuff and roll with it, and I can't speak for them but I'm having a blast and I'm reasonably confident they're enjoying it too. My current group happens to be a very interesting group of both people who lean hard in the OSR direction, and people who lean hard in the storygame direction, and one of the storygame players did struggle with it a bit. I don't think this framing would make them any more preferential towards this style of gaming, but at least it might facilitate their understanding, although again, I think at this point they do understand that that's just what this game is going to be.

But anyway, that's sort of veering away from the main point, which is that, I think it's worth considering frameworks outside of "storygame" or "gamey-game" or whatever, and here I'm proposing "performance art" as another kind of game, and that's what I'm trying to make.

It is about characters' inner struggles, and interpersonal struggles, and societal struggles, and that is broadly encoded in the Karma mechanic, but not by genre. It is about problem-solving, but less so in the sense of logic puzzles and resource management, and more in how you confront these weird and inexplicable circumstances- it's more a creative challenge. I guess it's more of a life challenge, if again I may be so pretentious. Things happen that violate our expectations, there is much uncertainty, there is a balance between the comfort of the known and comfortable vs. the appeal of novelty and danger. The players' actions matter; just as I said I love making players go "woah...", I also love when players make me go "woah...".

So hopefully this newest step in my attempt to explain myself clarifies certain things for you, or inspires you, either to think of your own games or gaming style as performance art or to think of what else gaming may mean to you.


  1. You might like reading At Swim Two Birds. It's an Irish magic-realist novel from two years after the original Hobbit.

    1. I looked it up and it seems super interesting, thanks for the recommendation. I impulse bought it on kindle. I'm slowly working through the short stories of Kafka at the moment and all of Confucianism so I may not get to it for a while, but I look forward to eventually reading it.