Analyses of the Unreal

Joshua Reynolds, Theory oil painting

Although TTRPGs are a relatively young cultural form, there is a huge body of discourse on them—huge to the point of seeming overwhelming. This post is meant to ease some of that anxiety by aggregating and annotating important contributions to the critical discussion surrounding TTRPGs. Its two primary goals are to promote better understandings of:

  • critical vocabulary and conceptual frameworks
  • the history of RPGs and RPG theory

This roster isn’t comprehensive—and won’t ever be—but it will be updated as I’m able to review additional resources.

Updated 4 July 2022
New entries are marked *

Philosophy

Magne Gåsland, What did Wittgenstein Say About What ‘A Game’ Is? Contains excerpts and some quotations from secondary sources, all of which convey Wittgenstein’s notion of games. Though his primary argument concerns language, Wittgenstein uses games as an analogy, arguing that even though we may not be able to comprehensively define games, we recognize them through their shared characteristics.

Play Theory

Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens. Lays out the primary characteristics of play that Wittgenstein gestures toward. Huizinga also sketches a binary typology of abstract play. His overall argument is that civilization arises from the human instinct toward play. I’ve previously written about Huizinga’s theory and its relation to TTRPGs.

Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games. Elaborates on Huizinga’s themes, including the characteristics of games and play, the continuum between the two, the major types of play, and how game dynamics inform our social interactions. I’ve also written a short reference sheet that sketches the major points.

Greg Costikyan, I Have No Words & I Must Design. Recasts ideas from Huizinga and Callois for TTRPG design. Very readable and relevant in presentation, if not particularly original in content.

Theories of Games

Richard D. Duke, Gaming: The Future’s Language. Duke presents gaming as a complex form of communication that enable participants to explore and understand large-scale systems more effectively and efficiently than is possible through other, less sophisticated modes of communication. The book also includes astute frameworks for developing, testing, and evaluating games. Published in 1974—the same year Gygax and Arneson formally released Dungeons & Dragons—the book makes no mention of TTRPGs but is fundamentally applicable to them. (Points about accessibility of digital technology and means of distribution are, however, self-evidently dated.)

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play. A sprawling study of game design in the contexts of formal mechanics, play experience, and human culture. Oriented primarily around the concept of meaningful play—interaction and experience that is responsive both in terms of accepting input and providing feedback to the player—this textbook breaks its three broad schemas into smaller, disciplinary perspectives that provide a pluralistic view of what games are and how they work. Although generally written for designers of games both analog and digital, it provides a wealth of information, insight, and inspiration for all scholars, makers, and players.

James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games. Recasts all forms of human activity as two types of play. The argument is framed dialectically and presented aphoristically, leaving virtually no corner of society and culture unexamined. An expansive, sometimes abstract, and perspective-altering mode of examining human nature.

William Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma. Part biography, part history, part theoretical exposition. An accessible introduction to the pinnacles and pitfalls of rational decision-making in two-player games. Not directly related to RPGs, but still relevant to theoretical concerns.

Genre Criticism

Linda H. Codega, A Game Without Players Can Still Be Played. An examination of the lyric games subgenre. Whereas most TTRPGs are narrative games that deliver a conflict/resolution experience, lyric games explore concepts, affects, and ideas. Codega provides thoughtful discussion and links to many interesting games.

Marcia B., Critique of the Conversation Surrounding Lyric Games. Reviews select literature on lyric games to dissect and analyze implicit assumptions about the genre. In particular, the critique examines lyric games tendency to be primarily literary (reading) rather than ludic (playing) exercises, and it also questions the ideological underpinings that contradict the genre’s broadly stated socio-political intentions.

Dan Phipps, Post-Dungeon Fantasy. Sketches a definition of the titular genre. It positions post-dungeon fantasy as a bricolage of other genres that self-reflexively examines the state of the modern world, and it positions it in contrast with the un-self-critical tropes and ideologies that pervade classic dungeon fantasy games and adventures.

Marcia B., The OSR Should Die. A long blog post examining the history of the OSR movement in tabletop RPGs, posits how its identity developed from roots in an idealized past, and why the many competing interpretations of the OSR have ultimately led away from a coherent meaning to instead leave the term empty of any substantial meaning at all. The complementary Keystones page expands on the roster of blog posts, threads, and rulebook publications that contributed to the formation and development of the OSR movement.

*Rosie Grey, Worldbuilding Grotesque. A short but astute discussion of the relationship between Rabelaisian literature (particularly the grotesque body) and engagement with RPGs.

*James Maliszewski, Picaro and the “Story” of D&D. Rejects “story” as a ex-post-facto artifact of play and instead situates the core RPG experience in the picaresque, a (largely defunct) literary genre defined by the sequential, sometimes fantastical adventures of self-interested roguish characters.

Terminology

Amagi Games, The Manyfold Glossary. A roster of terms and concepts useful for players, designers, and critics/theorists.

 S. John Ross, An RPG Lexicon. A specialized, useful conceptual vocabulary for thinking about play and game design in terms of tactics, problem solving, and characterization. Links to more in-depth discussions of topics and terms.

RPG Geek, RPG Glossary. A sprawling list of gaming terms. Includes some technical design language as well as player slang and colloquialisms.

History of TTRPGs

Latitude Team, Role-Playing Games in the Renaissance Court. Summarizes pre-modern games with RPG elements like mechanical randomization, adopting fictional characters, collaborative storytelling, and using fictional worlds as a tool for problem-solving. Links to sources for further reading. A useful starting point for exploring the original Old-School Renaissance.

Jody Macgregor, The authors of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre were roleplaying long before Dungeons & Dragons. A brief overview of the Bronte siblings’ forays into roleplaying. Macgregor differentiates their activities from collaborative fiction writing by their early use of miniatures, and he also draws a parallel with bluebooking.

Jon Peterson, The Elusive Shift. An in-depth, very readable history of early TTRPG culture and the concurrent emergence of RPG theory. Peterson begins by examining the opposing schools of mid-century wargaming (playability vs. realism, “free” wargaming vs. strictly rules-adjudicated play) and the emergence of distinct characters in wargaming, then the discussion moves on to the fundamental ambiguity and incompleteness of D&D as a basis for early RPG adopters (SFF fandom and wargamers) to explore different goals and desires. Concludes with discussions of AD&D’s attempt to force closure via a comprehensive system and Blacow’s model of player types as the first sophisticated theorization of the genre. In addition to being an interesting history lesson, Peterson’s work exposes how ongoing theoretical and practical debates have been, all along, the fundamental bedrock of RPGs.

Steven Darlington, A History of Roleplaying. A nine-part series that delivers a surprising amount of detail while remaining engaging and readable. Covers important games as well as the history of the industry and cultural reactions to RPGs.

Jon H. Kim, A Brief History of Fashion in RPG Design. Describes the history of RPGs, 1974 – 2000s, as a series of discrete, coherent movements that dominate certain periods.

The Retired Adventurer, Six Cultures of Play. An overview of the sets of norms, techniques, and desires that define six broad cultures of roleplaying and gamers: Classic, Traditional, LARP, Story, OSR, and OC/Neo-Traditional. Also includes enlightening historical context of their emergences. A quick, concise, but useful resource.

Lowell Francis, Age of Ravens. Multi-part histories of RPGs by genre. I’ve not read it, but it strikes me as intelligent and fairly detailed.

Shannon Appelcline, Designers & Dragons. A four-volume series exploring RPG history decade by decade. I haven’t read this either, but I’ve seen it praised.

RPG Theory

Player Types

Glen Blacow, Aspects of Adventure Gaming. Divides players into four fundamental types. This is a foundational text that informs the major trends of RPG theory that followed.

Robin D. Laws, Player Types. Refines Blacow’s quartet into a more granular sextet.

Hunter Logan, Player Goals. Further expands player types to 15 categories and includes a discussion of relevant design considerations.

The Threefold Model

John H. Kim, The Origin of the Threefold Model. Describes the tumultuous birth and development of RPG theory discussions online. In this phase, RPG theory is concerned with how players make in-game decisions. The model posits stances based on competition, storytelling, and exploration.

John H. Kim, The Threefold Model FAQ. A primary document summarizing the main characteristics of this early model. Revised, but contains links to original versions.

GNS

Ron Edwards, System Does Matter. Discusses the role mechanics play in the gaming experience. Recasts the basics of the Threefold Model and introduces discussion of modes of resolution, including how the weight of the rules affects gameplay. This is the starting point for Edwards’s work on the GNS model.

Ron Edwards, GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory. A relatively elaborate and wide-ranging model of RPG design and function oriented on player goals. Intended as something of a design bible, the model has some usefulness for analysis but is (in my opinion) too abstract to be effective as a direct, practical resource for creators.

Post-GNS Models

Ron Edwards, The Big Model (secondary source). An attempt to bring GNS’s insights into a more unified practical model. Again, I feel its focus on creating a panoptic perspective inhibits its usefulness as a design framework, and the theory’s alleged unity feels like an arbitrary bricolage.

John H. Kim, The 3D Model of Role-Playing. A summary of the 3D model that refines GNS into 9 granular categories oriented on the focus of play and the centralization of authority. Includes a discussion of how the two theories interact and overlap.

Scarlet Jester, All You Need to Know About GEN. A Marxist-inspired model of how infrastructural techniques support superstructural player desires.

The Israeli School

Haggai Elkayam Shalem, Your Character Does Not Exist. Argues that characters are an inaccessible pretense for play and that gaming is better understood as interaction and communication amongst players.

Michael Gorodin, Everyone Is a GM. Reconsiders authority in terms of cues that affect other players’ behaviors and attitudes. The implication is that game running is less hierarchical, more collaborative and interactive than is typically recognized. References and links to other related sources.

Gil Ran, Your Game Doesn’t Have a Story. Examines conceptions of a game’s narrative and argues that “story” is a matter of establishing and satisfying expectations rather than premeditated plotting or a continuous, coherent, recognizable form that play adheres to in real time.

Proceduralism

*W.F. Smith, What Even Is a “Procedure”? A good starting point for understanding procedures in gaming and Proceduralism as a movement. The article establishes a definition for procedure, differentiates it from other types of mechanics (called substantive), looks at examples in D&D and Monopoly, and provides a short history of procedures’ rise in popularity.

*Necropraxis, Proceduralism. The originary post of the Proceduralist movement. It gives a brief definition (“the degree to which a game directs your actions) and discussion of procedures’ presence in broad genres of games and their alleged pedagogical value.

*Necropraxis, Doctrine of Proceduralism. Elaborates on the original discussion by discussing the relative weight of procedures and how they meet or fail to meet player expectations and desires. It also provides an evaluative framework for playtesting proceduralist games.

*Emmy Verte, Loops. Reframes the concept of procedure in terms of gameplay loops. The article primarily consists of a taxonomy of types of loops. Particularly handy for analysis and design.

W.F. Smith, The Basic Procedure of the OSR. A literature review and revised (in light of the anti-canon discussion) analysis of the Basic Procedure according to which traditionally structured RPGs operate. Smith’s focus is on OSR, but it’s broadly applicable to any game that uses a GM (and probably others that don’t).

*Nova (Idle Cartulary), Broader Proceduralisms. Looks at procedures outside the commonly recognized ones inherited from D&D and the OSR. Most notably, the article situates formal procedures as a tool for focusing games on particular themes and delivering the desired play experiences.

*Ava Islam, Errant Design Deep Dive #2: Core Procedures. Autobiographical reflection, design rationale, and theoretical exposition from a designer who has greatly contributed to proceduralism’s popularity. Includes some astute observations regarding procedures’ flexibility in play and the importance of structure and constraint in facilitating meaningful creative freedom.

*Gus L., A Manifesto for Proceduralism. Defines procedures as mechanics for deploying other mechanics and grounds consideration of procedures in the US legal concept of proceduralism. The essay also delves into the disconnect caused by invisible or undefined procedures, emphases of different play cultures, and the difficulty of creating the desired gaming experiences. It’s a long, fairly rigorous article that lays out directives for using proceduralism as an interpretive tool but also a set of goals for designers.

Marcia B., Theoretical & Practical Proceduralism. A formalist analysis of proceduralism as the structuring logic of play. The essay begins with a general overview and then proceeds to define proceduralism by way of defining its components and related terms. It includes several examples of proceduralism in action as well as additional discussions of procedure in practice.

Proceduralism in Action

*Necropraxis, Overloading the Encounter Die

*W.F. Smith, Exploding the Encounter Die

*Marcia B., Turn

*Ava Islam, Errant

Other Theoretical Discussions

Steven Darlington, Defining Our Terms. A very readable discussion of the conflicted relationship between rules-based gaming and storytelling, which presents a perennial problem for considerations of narrative experiences.

M. Joseph Young, Theory 101. A three-part series that covers players’ relationship with rules in a shared space, categories of play, and the question of fun in gaming.

Greg Porter, Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going. A taxonomy of RPGs based around the binary opposition between mechanics and lore (system and setting, fluff and crunch, etc.)

Brian Gleichman, Elements of Gaming. A very valuable, design-focused discussion of TTRPGs. A wide-ranging study of many that examines complexity, tactics, strategy, mechanics rationales, and levels of player experience without sacrificing valuable theoretical and practical insight.

Vincent Baker, A Theory Point: RPG Essentialism & RPG Exceptionalism. Describes a pair of logical fallacies pertaining to RPGs. Essentialism is the notion that there is an abstract, underlying ur-RPG that different systems approximate in different ways. Exceptionalism claims RPGs’ unique features make them distinct from other games (or from games at large).

Digests

Emily Care Boss, Theory Roundup. A resource-packed narrative of RPG history, RPG theory, and the history of RPG theory through 2014.

John H. Kim, Evolution of the Threefold Model. Summarizes the origin and thesis of the Threefold Model, then overviews the theories that emerged from that foundation.

Brian Gleichman, Timeline of RPG Theory. A compendium similar to Kim’s various essays, but includes extended contextual consideration of preceding theories.

Systems & Design

Roles, Rules & Rolls. Analog, Digital, Procedural. A discussion of three types of information in gaming: analog details, digital stats, and procedural instructions. A much-needed alternative to the fluff-crunch dichotomy that constitutes Porter’s centerpiece.

S. John Ross, Porn Logic. Addresses mechanics’ role in dictating play behavior on both sides of the screen. Contrasts this style with the organic, creative activity of roleplaying and discusses the types of tactics appropriate to each.

Paul Beakley, The Many Utilities of Rules. A brief examination of the purposes that rules serve in games: ensuring fair competition, facilitating learning, and providing a desired experience.

Jay Dragon, The Puzzle-Maker’s Paradox. A critical look at the difficulties of new-player retention in TTRPGs. Dragon argues that game designers are least suited to designing effective “on-ramps” for new players because designers all suffer from survivorship bias: they tried gaming and walked away with a desire to improve or innovate game systems. What worked for them obviously won’t work for a player who tried and failed to develop a persistent interest in gaming. The article looks at shortcomings of common on-ramps and puts forward a few options for designers to consider.

Arnold Kemp, OSR-Style Challenges: “Rulings Not Rules” is Insufficient. A more nuanced look at the underpinnings that support rulings in play. Particularly noteworthy is the emphasis on an incomplete system that leaves room for innovation by refusing to formalize problem-solving options and avoids intimate interconnection amongst rules, which forestalls a cascade of unintended consequences. The post also discusses adjudication, good and bad rulings, devising problems that encourage novel solutions, and communication amongst players and GMs.

Augury Ignored, Productive Voids, or The Unfathomable Agony of Rule Holes. Expands on Kemp’s discussion with the titular concept. Productive voids are gaps in the rules that provide space for adaptation and innovation. The challenge for designers is to indicate where these gaps are and how they can best be exploited.

*Necropraxis, Reflection and Formation. Splits rules into two categories: reflective, which create a coherent fiction, and formative, which formally govern the situation of play. The binary is a bit reductive, but the article includes some sharp observations about how the two types interact to create meaningful experiences.

RPGs as Art

Robin D. Laws, The Hidden Art. A seminal text in which Laws explains the need for (and problems with) a critical discourse on RPGs.

Robert Sullivan, Role-Playing Games as Art. An argument for considering RPGs as an artform that amalgamates literary, graphic, and performance elements. It is somewhat superficial and blatantly self-contradictory in its insistence that RPGs are meant to be played while locating their artistic merit in the printed materials. The most recent and explicit argument of this type that I’m aware of, and highly instructive in its shortcomings.

Walton Wood, Revaluating RPGs. My own response to Sullivan’s argument. Drawing on many of the resources listed in this bibliography, I argue that the persistent confusion of game materials with RPGs themselves has led to a miscategorization of RPGs as a form of art. I instead argue that RPG’ foundation in complex communication makes them categorically distinct from traditionally recognized artforms. You can read a non-academic digest version here.

Daniel McKay, The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art. Discusses TTRPGs as “imaginary-entertainment environments” that draw on in-game lore as well as cultural referents to inform and inspire player performances. These performances retroactively constitute an aesthetic object (the recalled narrative) that McKay identifies as the locus of RPGs’ artistic value. A taxonomic analysis of the formal, social, cultural, and aesthetic levels that relies heavily on structuralist theory (which isn’t in itself a bad thing even if it’s no longer in vogue) with some interesting emphasis on power structures and their subversion in play.

Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. A book primarily concerned with hypertexts and early computer and videogames. It includes a small discussion of TTRPGs as “oral cybertexts” due to their dependence on active participant engagement and decision-making. Especially valuable is Aarseth’s discussion of how criticism and theory of ergodic literature (including RPGs) must grow from the objects of study themselves rather than accepting standards, methods, and assumptions imported from other areas of critical inquiry.

Brian Duguid, “I Know What I Like!” A direct response to Laws’s “Hidden Art.” Duguid argues that players’ active engagement in games separates TTRPGs from traditional artforms, and that interpreting TTRPGs as art alienates players from their own creative labor.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. A critical inquiry into the work of the Renaissance humanist François Rabelais. Bakhtin and Rabelais both appear in other discussions of games and play. Bakhtin’s introduction discusses the culture and social dynamics of medieval Carnival, which is particularly relevant to those surrounding TTRPGs.

Roland Barthes, The Structuralist Activity. Explains structuralist thought as “fabrication of a world … to render it intelligible.” Not specifically game-related but a good (if rather abstract) complement to Duke’s discussion of games as educationally oriented abstractions of complex systems.

Further Reading

Periodicals

Places to Go, People to Be. An important early forum for TTRPG discussions. No longer in production, but its archives are still available.

Interactive Fantasy. Another early journal that explored questions regarding TTRPG design, play, and study. Also out of print, but a foundational resource for students and scholars. All four issues are available.

Analog Game Studies. A scholarly journal dedicated to tabletop games at large.

International Journal of Role-playing. An interdisciplinary journal incorporating discussions of game design, play, and study.

Indexes

John H. Kim, RPG Theory. Contains links to resources discussing TTRPGs and the many issues that intersect in the gaming space.

Emily Care Boss, Thoughts. An expansive list of essays and articles on topics related to gaming.

Reference

RPG Museum, Theory. Contains entries on various theories and topics.


Do you know of a good resource that belongs in this list? Please let me know.

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