Book Corner: The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop RPGs

Jennifer Grouling Cover’s The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games is an outstanding effort to open the doors to authentic rhetorical and sociological study of the genre system. She effectively challenges writers and scholars who have labeled TRPGs as non-narrative or simply an antecedent genre to Computer RPGs, deftly critiquing the value-based progressive mindset, which dismisses that which came before as inferior. It still only serves as an opening effort, however, and several of the areas she tries to explore are limited by her own RPG experience, as well as her choice to focus exclusive on a single Role-Playing Game – Dungeons and Dragons, 3rd Edition.
She begins by addressing a tendency in the literature that has gone before to dismiss Tabletop RPGs as, well, something that has gone before and is no longer really a thing. It’s a natural result of all the Computer RPG developers who talk about the influence that Dungeons and Dragons had on their conceptions of gameplay. The problem is that not only have Tabletop RPGs not gone the way of the dodo, the forms that sprung out of D&D’s influence leave certain capabilities of the Tabletop RPG behind, such as the potential for true narrative agency on the part of the players. Lest anyone think that the book is solely for academic analysis of TRPGs, there are plenty of things players and GMs can benefit from in the text. The discussion of varying levels of authorship in an RPG narrative could make us all a lot more self-reflective in how we’re building stories when we play.
The book does suffer from a limited worldview. Cover played in a campaign of 3rd Edition D&D, and in a homebrew world with a plot devised specifically for the players involved. Most of us have had this sort of experience, with varying levels of success, at one time or another; however, I’m not at all certain that it is representative of the typical TRPG experience, to say nothing of the typical D&D or Pathfinder experience. Narrative agency is in short supply in the typical Pathfinder Society module – she references RPGA, which she found unsatisfying, but PFS even removes the aggregate effect the RPGA allowed the players to have on the storyline. I’ve previously talked about how D20 is an enemy-focused game, which can make the PCs somewhat plug-and-play. It’s interesting that she brings up the old Choose Your Own Adventure stories, of which video games end up being just a highly elaborate and quite pretty version. I think pre-written modules, and even Paizo’s Adventure Paths, probably fall somewhere on the spectrum between a pick-and-play gamebook and a truly autonomous narrative, but that’s hard to evaluate without study of some non-d20 games.
In our author’s defense, it would have been a much larger book to take on the entire genre system of Tabletop RPGs, but I think her work definitely points the way for deeper exploration. First might be acknowledging that TRPGs are a genre system – while TRPGs have several similarities between them, even the reason for playing can vary by game, and the way in which design questions are answered leads me to believe that we won’t see the whole picture if we call TRPGs a single genre. Call of Cthulhu is only 7 years younger than hoary old D&D, and posits a completely different narrative experience from its slightly older fantasy cousin. How we’ve developed conceptions of narrative control, and how the pendulum has swung in the industry between role-playing and game-playing are both threads that could be pulled on for future study. The study of TRPGs also presents a tremendous opportunity for anyone interested in how negotiated outcomes work within rules structures, or how narratives develop in collaborative environments. For gamers, it’s a chance to peer a little deeper into the meaning of what you’re doing those evenings with your friends and your dice.

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