There are lots of TTRPGs out there. People like lots of different games. They play the same games in different ways. And although gamers generally agree that if you’re having fun then you’re doing it right, debates still occur.
Those debates have caused plenty of strife in the community at large and at individual tables. Digital media has made these conflicts very visible in recent decades, but the same debates have been inherent in RPGs from their modern origins in the mid-1970s, when the genre diverged from traditional wargaming.
As Jon Peterson explains in his book The Elusive Shift, RPGs emerged when individual characters and their advancement came to the forefront of players’ experience. Before D&D, other games (and players, informally) made steps in this direction, but the dragon game is where it really kicked off.
But even as the foundation of the RPG scene, D&D engendered a major schism in that fledgling subculture: the question of how to play the game. That question stems from the two pre-existing communities that overwhelmingly supplied the game’s initial adopters.
The first group was wargamers who played RPGs like they played the genre’s precursor—as competitive matchups. For them, D&D pitted the characters against a hostile environment that was actively trying to kill them.
The other major demographic was the SFF community, who saw RPGs as an occasion for collective authorship. Games were less competitive and more collaborative, constructive efforts to build a pleasing and well-wrought narrative.
D&D appealed to both groups, but despite the drastically different approaches, neither were “hacking” the system in the modern sense. These early gamers became the first wave of RPG theorists and designers due to an essential, integral ambiguity in the system itself.
D&D provided some mechanics but not a comprehensive system. Players had to fill in the gaps by homebrewing rules, and fan zines proliferated as a means of disseminating this content (which they did successfully) and arguing for the “ideal” or “true” way to play (which, as you can guess, they did not accomplish). Simultaneously, this motivated the first wave of RPG designers as many early players went on to devise systems that better accommodated their own preferred play styles.
But just as importantly, D&D didn’t actually tell players how to play the game. It instead demonstrated or modeled the process through a sample dialogue between the DM and the “caller,” a representative of the group of players controlling the party.
Between the gaps in the formal system and the lack of explicit instructions, along with players’ pre-existing preferences, it’s easy to see how play styles parted ways and led to diverse manifestations of the singular genre. But despite the differences, all RPGs still have two things in common: system and communication.
Alongside D&D, 1974 also saw the publication of Richard Duke’s Gaming: The Future’s Language. This book is primarily intended as a design guide for developing complex games for practical use in corporate organizations, civic institutions, and educational settings. Duke makes no reference to RPGs—for obvious reasons—but his observations about games are extremely relevant to the genre.
Duke conceptualizes game systems as abstractions of large-scale, complex phenomena. Monopoly is a prime and almost universally known example of this; it distills the complex workings of commercial property ownership into an activity that even children can engage and enjoy.
This sort of abstraction eliminates lots of complexity, and therefore veracity, but retains enough for a game to meaningfully represent whatever dynamic it models. Thus, games can serve as a consequence free, exploratory, problem-solving medium.
In D&D, for example, a common problem is clearing a dungeon of monsters so players can collect treasure. The game’s mechanics provide an abstract, formal framework players use to solve that problem.
These abstracted systems facilitate what Duke calls multilogue: a non-hierarchical, simultaneous mode of communication. Whenever players speak amongst themselves and to the DM, they’re all engaging in multilogue. The concurrent lines of communication distinguish the multilogue from, say, a question-and-answer dialogue with an authority. D&D’s original model of a caller coordinating the party and then speaking to the DM is a multi-phase dialogue that has largely (if not universally) fallen by the wayside in favor of the more direct and egalitarian multilogue.
Obviously, multiple layers of conversation occur at the gaming table. Asking someone to pass the chips doesn’t directly impact the game, but saying that you backstab the treasury guard does. And the latter type of communication is governed by the game’s system, ensuring the RPG multilogue doesn’t descend into a chaotic free-for-all.
Most of us recognize that system does, in fact, matter. And it matters because system determines our conversations by establishing authority and credibility.
As M. Joseph Young explains in his Theory 101 article, authority exists in the rules and mechanics, which constitute an objective, formal space of play possibilities. Players invoke this authority to establish or advance their own credibility as participants in the game. Credibility dictates what they can and cannot legitimately say in the conversation, and whether or not the other players will accept their statements as true or meaningful.
In D&D, for example, a character-controlling player doesn’t have the credibility to decide how many doors are in a room. That is the DM’s purview. Likewise, the DM doesn’t (shouldn’t) have the credibility to decide a player character’s actions.
A game like Fiasco, on the other hand, don’t have a designated GM. It distributes credibility more equitably amongst players, who are able to make decisions beyond individual character actions.
Of course, even hierarchical games can give character players some latitude. A spellcaster may be able to conjure a door—but only because the rules grant them credibility through spell mechanics. A fighter doesn’t have access to that credibility—but anyone with a high enough strength score could also make their own door thanks to the credibility granted by a different mechanical subset.
Credibility is only invoked in the domain of in-game communication. Communication in the social frame of people-sitting-at-a-table, rather than the frame of the game’s imaginary world, can also exert a huge influence on player behavior and thus on the game itself.
The Israeli school of RPG theory calls this type of communication guiding actions. Guiding actions encompass out-of-play utterances (“pass the Doritos”) as well as body language like posture (slumping in your chair or burying your face in your hands) and minor actions (intentionally examining your character sheet or unconsciously twirling a pencil when pensive or bored).
These forms of communication convey players’ attitudes, enthusiasm, and attention, and all of these factors influence the other players, including the DM. While a player may not have the credibility to explicitly, directly decide “there’s a door there,” that player’s actions—expressing boredom or frustration—can influence the DM to put a door there.
In their textbook Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman repeatedly emphasize that designers cannot directly design play. They can only indirectly influence it through game design. Likewise, players cannot directly wield total credibility, but whatever credibility they lack can be indirectly influenced through guiding actions.
So even in a hierarchically structured, strongly centralized system like D&D, each player directly affects the other players’ (including the DM’s) behaviors, and so they’re indirectly affecting the whole play experience at all times. Constantly communicating with and influencing other players, even when we’re not explicitly saying anything about the game or play, is a subtle but crucial aspect of games’ simultaneous, decentralized multilogue.
All of this is one way of conceptualizing the complex phenomena of tabletop roleplaying. There are others, and they have their own strengths and weaknesses. But the more ways we’re able to examine games and play, the better equipped we are to understand them at large.
By expanding our vocabulary and conceptual toolbox, we increase our ability to discuss fundamental problems—which is, according to Duke, the very purpose of games themselves. By improving our ability to communicate about games, perhaps we can also improve our communication in games, and so enhance their (and our) capacity to address the problems they present, both in their manifest content and their abstract, conceptual structures.
Emmy Allen’s Stygian Library in silhouette
Forge a dynasty from birth scream to last gasp
Insight and inspiration from Johan Nohr