This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Those of us make stuff up for a living face a wide variety of possible ways to make ourselves crazy. One of the fastest and most direct routes to self-induced insanity is to obsess over the ultimate worth of one’s work. This is hardly unique to game design, as any composer, artist, actor, dancer or writer fiction can attest. The game designer, should he be foolish enough to obsess over such matters, gets to wrestle an additional demon: the question of whether the entire form, let alone his or her contribution to it, will be of any interest to future generations.

There’s a good chance that roleplaying will be seen as an interesting movement in the history of narrative. It may turn out to be important either unto itself, or as the spawning ground for some future form of cooperative, spontaneous storytelling that grows out of Internet videogames or the LARP scene. If it does, the influential figures of rpg design might one day be remembered with the reverence that jazz scholars invest on the original greats of that music style. Gary Gygax can be our Jelly Roll Morton; Dave Arneson, our Buddy Bolden.

On the other hand, roleplaying could just as easily sink into footnote status, like other hybrid art forms. Ever heard of Rudolf Steiner’s eurhythmics movement, except as the inspiration for a band name?

If roleplaying does have something to contribute to history, I think it’ll most likely be in its methodology, its development of structures for the give and take of storytelling. The psychological element of compromise between players of different tastes may be what interests future PhDs in departments of Roleplaying Studies throughout the world of academia.

The aesthetic content of any given rpg session seems at first blush to be less interesting. Most sessions are stuffed with awkward filler, meander from one plot point to another, and are given over largely to ritualistic re-enactment of pre-established genre tropes. They adopt the trappings of the adventure only to explore its simplest, least challenging level, as a vehicle for power fantasy. Its emotional and thematic development is arrested: more Hopalong Cassidy than The Searchers or Once Upon a Time in the West.

On second thought, though, it may transpire that it is precisely the disjunctive nature of rpg narrative, its nature as a series of awkwardly-connected cool scenes that enter into a dialogue with an entire history of previous cool scenes, that makes roleplaying worthy of critical attention.

The world of film, both on the popular level and in the art house, is converging on roleplaying. Cinema is increasingly becoming a home for storytelling that is more about emotion and style than about traditional narrative coherence. More about ritual recapitulation of past cinematic experiences than about the reflection of real life. Narrative is becoming merely a glue to string together a series of set pieces in which emotion is conveyed through style. This is the cinema of gesture.

For example, the British romantic comedy Love Actually and the cult-fave Japanese horror flick Ju On (remade in Hollywood as The Grudge, with Sarah Michelle Gellar), both share the same gestural impulses. Love Actually crams together a huge number of characters, becoming its own greatest hits package. It plays like a compilation of a dozen other romantic comedies, consisting only of pivotal scenes. Connective tissue has gone out the window in favor of relentless movement from one emotional high point to the next. Likewise, Ju On fractures chronology and traditional identification with its lead characters to increase the audience’s sense of unease.

Director Takashi Shimuzi discards the usual orientation points provided even in a standard horror flick to move from one minimalistically freaky scare scene to the next. Again, it’s like a greatest-hits version of six Ju On sequels spliced together and shuffled at random.

Gestural cinema is nothing new. Maybe it starts with the 60s films of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. He combined an iconoclastic world view with a love of Hollywood genre cinema to create challenging but seductive movies in which moments of style, many obliquely referencing moments from classic genre moments, pop out suddenly from a static or circular plot structure. Generations of directors, inspired by his surfaces and structural looseness, have gone on to amplify and adapt his style. Call it post-modernism, call it trip-hop narrative, but it’s here, and its leaping the boundary from art culture into pop culture.

This path finds its ultimate outlet in a cinema dear to my heart, the genre-splicing, style-crazy movies of Hong Kong’s classic period from the late eighties to mid-nineties. Their veerings from low comedy to high melodrama to violence and back to sentimentality are initially off-putting to many Western gamers. This irony at its finest: its ragbag of tones and moods is perpetuated weekly in roleplaying sessions all around the world.

What is a roleplaying game session if not a series of stylistic gestures freed of the straightjackets of normal narrative progression? A tense action scene can give way to absurd comedy at the drop of a critical failure. An Elric clone can and will show up in the middle of a weird west game. D&D samples imagery from both the high-fantasy tradition of Tolkien and the sword and sorcery approach of R. E. Howard. Telltale tropes from H. P. Lovecraft can insert their non-Euclidean geometry into almost any game. To satisfy the various demands of players, many popular games offer kitchen-sink, genre-blending settings. I’ve long held that any commercially successful game will allow you to play a ninja.

Whereas in a gestural movie, the director is recapitulating his favorite fictional moments and moods for the delectation of an audience, the participants in a roleplaying session are activating similar tropes for their own enjoyment — and, sometimes secondarily, for the other players gathered around them.

If gaming warrants critical study, it will not be despite the craziness, pop culture imagery and self-indulgence of the typical roleplaying experience — it will be because of it. They are its essence.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

While developing collaborators’ scenarios for Black Star Magic, I found myself puzzling out a design style question arising from a particular feature of QuickShock.

In previous iterations of GUMSHOE, and most other games with hit points or a hit point-like function, characters can theoretically leave play at any time. In all GUMSHOE games characters can die physically, ending their stories and requiring players to create replacements. In our various horror games, characters can also exit after cracking under intolerable mental strain.

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game follows that pattern: your character can shuffle off in both ways. Unlike games with traditional hit points (Health points in GUMSHOE) or Sanity / Stability points, YKRPG characters take their final curtains after receiving a predetermined number of Injury or Shock cards. After 3 or 4 cards, depending on how forgiving the GM has chosen to make her game, they’re outta there.

My scenarios provide ample opportunities to take Injury and Shock cards. In fact, one of the key requests made by playtesters was STOP MURDERING US SO HARD.

One or two of my more forgiving colleagues, on the other hand, just might have submitted scenarios including a less-than-fatal number of Injuries and/or Shocks.

This raised the question: is that poor form?

A scenario for standard GUMSHOE might make the prospect of death unlikely, by going light on scenes featuring fights or physical hazards. Likewise it might feature only a handful of Stability or Composure tests. But depending on how many points players have invested in key pools, you can’t say for certain that the scenario won’t dispatch a PC or two.

In QuickShock you can count the number of times the characters might take cards, and see that it doesn’t equal the Final Card threshold.

That’s before taking edge cases into account, though.

In an ongoing game, one or more characters may already have Continuity Shock or Injury cards carried over from previous play. This drops their effective thresholds for receiving new cards. If you have the Injury card Circulatory Damage, you start every scenario being able to receive one less Injury additional card than you did when you began play. A scenario that deals out a maximum of two Injuries could, if you get both of them, end you.

Also, the GM, responding to surprise player choices, may wind up improvising additional fights, hazards, and disturbing events. When these go wrong they hand out cards over and above those listed in the scenario. “You can’t die from the cards listed in the scenario” must always be read as “You can’t die from the cards listed in the scenario, if you only do what the scenario predicts you might do.” Those of us who have ever run a game know how big an if that is.

In yet another also, the GM never tells the players that a scenario includes few Shock or Injury cards. It’s not the actual likelihood of investigator demise that creates suspense in play, but the threat of it as perceived by the players, that delivers the emotional freight. When you get the last card listed in the scenario, you have no way of knowing that there aren’t a boatload more of them still potentially to come. Unless you read the scenario afterwards, you’ll never see that you were actually safe.

For those reasons, I decided that it should not be a requirement that every published scenario hand out enough cards to potentially kill off a character.

Also, with rare exceptions, Shock and Injury cards impose other penalties on the characters who receive them. That’s why they exist. Unlike a quantity of lost hit points, they create lingering effects that impact the story. They sit in front of the players, reminding them that something has gone wrong. Something that must be addressed. The anxious desire to get rid of these awful, nagging cards mimics the fear and unease of the characters. Even if you can only get one card of a given type in a scenario, when you get it, you generally really want to get rid of it. One card you remember getting, or struggling to discard, exerts a greater impact than some Health points you lost and then refreshed.

Even if that weren’t the case, a philosophical design question remains: is it somehow cheating, or poor form, to introduce the possibility of character demise when it can’t actually happen? A D&D or 13th Age game assumes you’ll be fighting up a storm over most evenings of play. But if a particular adventure has you intriguing your way through a trade dispute with little chance of taking an ax to the face, you likely consider that a refreshing change of pace. After a while you’re going to want to get back to the core activity of battling and looting, jotting down hit point losses as you go. But the adventure where the stakes aren’t the characters’ survival doesn’t register as a cheat.

For a scenario to engage the players, they have to care about something. They must want for X to happen and fear that it will not. The prospect of character death exists in games as a default set of stakes: do you live or die?

In the mystery scenario that GUMSHOE offers, you always have another measure of success, other than “am I still breathing at the end?” When you figure out what’s going on in time to prevent disaster, see justice done, or simply slake your curiosity, you’ve won.

As long as your choices lead to either good or bad consequences, those consequences don’t have to be Shock or Injury cards in order for players to walk away from the table remembering a gripping narrative.

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.