Limitations of role-playing games as art form

(Summary: they can’t be mechanically reproduced without catastrophic loss of fidelity.)

Economist Bryan Caplan argues that role-playing games — the “tabletop” kind played with other humans, generally on pen and paper and face-to-face — are a great art form that developed “behind their time,” i.e. long after technology should have made them possible. (Games resembling role-playing games don’t seem to have appeared until the 20th century, although cf. a case for the Bronte sisters and Branwell as the first “Dungeon Masters.”)

As a recent art-form, they are comparable to comics, and Caplan wants us to see the emergence of comics as a form appropriate to serious stories as a model for RPGs (see his manifesto on the subject).

RPGs have obviously had a ton of cultural influence — practically every video game has a few genes from the tabletop games of past decades, and mainstream writers have been making some hay out of RPG experiences. But they have a crippling limitation: they can’t be reproduced.

The core RPG experience is collaborative, improvised oral story-telling. Essentially by definition, this can’t be mechanically reproduced and disseminated widely, unlike novels, poems, drawings, paintings, music, movies, or comics. And it can’t be enjoyed simultaneously by hundreds or thousands, like theatrical plays (which can, of course, be recorded). A role-playing game is small-scale personal experience shared by a handful of people.

The obvious workarounds don’t really work. Yes, RPG rulebooks and adventure sourcebooks can be distributed widely, and there are countless thousands in circulation. But while they can be engrossing, they don’t capture what’s distinctive about the RPG. They’re like the notes to stories unwritten. By analogy to videogames, it seems plausible that the agency of the participants is key.

For the same reason, recordings of game sessions don’t do it either. The crucial element of involvement is missing. There are novels based on role-playing campaigns, but those are novels, not RPGs. Thousands downloaded the podcast recordings of the Penny Arcade guys playing D&D, but those are basically sketch comedy. Listening to Gabe and Tycho and friends ham it up is not itself role-playing.

Mechanical reproduction is an extremely important determinant of the cultural importance of an art form. Reproducibility means more people experience it, which means more social resources can be devoted to it, which means that practitioners develop more mastery. (Which is not to say the effects are necessarily all positive — historically, mechanically reproducible arts become professionalized, and we may all participate less and “consume” more.)

For this reason, RPGs seem destined to remain a marginal folk art rather than a form with the wide cultural salience of whatever it is they do on TV.

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