One of the subjects I have written about frequently in the last few months has been table-top role-playing games (TRPGs or RPGs), ranging from reflections on how these games are a form of collaborative storytelling that engages creatively (and often subversively) with cultural texts, to how aspects of my doctoral research has dovetailed with playing Dungeons & Dragons. More recently, I have been curious about ways in which RPGs can be used as a tool for disseminating research. I am thinking of devising an RPG that draws on my research in the environmental humanities to see if I can make these discussions reach a wider public.
So far, I am still at the drawing board: I have devised a workable system that is sufficiently rules-light to be accessible to new players who are unfamiliar with RPGs, but also sophisticated enough mechanically to facilitate deep and meaningful engagement with the stakes of the game. Such a game will need to be heavily narrative-focussed. I am toying with possible stories and settings that will give me the space to explore complex ethical issues surrounding human action on the environment, the contradictions of the Anthropocene, and forms of moral awareness of an ecosystem that goes beyond what the human imagination can readily grasp. Finally, what is perhaps the most challenging task, I am trying to secure funding to run this project and set up live-play events.
What are Table-Top Role-Playing Games?
Table-Top Role-Playing Games (TRPGs) are narrative games where players play characters in a shared fictional setting, and they narrate or enact their characters’ interactions with their environment or with each other. What makes them ‘table-top’ is that they are played at a table, as opposed to live-action games. TRPGs are usually pen-and-paper games, contrasting with their computer counter-parts, and using analogue components like source books, dice, information sheets, and stationery (or, more recently, digital approximations of analogue components like PDFs of source books, randomiser or dice-rolling apps, digital character sheets, etc).
The most widely-known TRPG is Dungeons & Dragons, and it features on television shows like Stranger Things, Community, etc. The novelist Junot Diaz is quite a vocal advocate of D&D, which he found opened up new horizons as for the first time a person of colour growing up in America could be the protagonist of an epic, heroic story.
How can they help my research reach a wider public?
TRPGs are a form of collaborative story-telling and improv. Stories matter. On a very rudimentary level, they help us build communities, empathise with others, and contemplate difficult questions. Good stories — like in novels, films, or TRPG campaigns — provoke us to reflect on ourselves and the world around us. So we can tell stories through TRPGs that engage critically with society, as Mary Flanagan describes in her book Critical Play: Radical Game Design. That is what I intend to do: tell a story about environmental catastrophe, and see how players respond to the difficult moral problems that emerge. These games, moreover, are collaborative: they bring players together to imagine creative solutions to these problems.
What’s so special about TRPGs as a method of communication?
TRPGs are a fun, interactive and immersive mode of story-telling which would engage with complex issues in a format that is accessible and collaborative. Because of the nature of games and play, this mode facilitates engagement with these issues with heightened emotional intensity and reward (see McGonigal). Researchers in game studies have argued that RPGs are a form of learning that stimulate autonomy and participation, making players equal co-creators of knowledge who bring their experience to the table, rather than passive recipients (see Klimick, et al.). The mechanical elements and performativity of these games can be a form of critical engagement and activism (see Flanagan), while the specific material nature of TRPGs make them uniquely suited to questions of environmental ethics and critiques of anthropocentric notions of human agency and control.
How far along am I in this project?
I am currently playtesting a rule system and setting for this game. Should this be successful, I will develop it into a wider project like a public live-play event. I have run a couple of games that tried to tell such stories, including a history-inspired game about Beethoven’s falling out with Napoleon Bonaparte and an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. These proved to be rather promising pilots. I look forward to planning this further and, quite soon, applying for funding to begin this project.
If any of the above interest you, or if you would like to know more about this project, please feel free to get in touch via email at me [at] viveksantayana [dot] co [dot] uk.
If you are interested in RPGs in some way, or have been involved with researching about RPGs, designing games, or bringing them to a wider public, then I would especially like to hear from you.
If you are based in Edinburgh and would be interested in helping playtest the game as I develop it, or if you would like to play in a session in the future (even if you would like to play on-line), then do also get in touch, and watch this page for any further updates.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.
Klimick, Carlos, et al. ‘The Incorporeal Project: Teaching through Tabletop RPGs in Brazil.’ Analog Game Studies 5.2 (Nov 2016). http://analoggamestudies.org/2016/11/the-incorporeal-project-teaching-through-tabletop-rpgs-in-brazil/
McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and how they can Change the World. London: Vintage, 2012.
Zagal, José and Sebastian Deterding eds. Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations. New York: Routledge, 2018.