Saturday, July 31, 2010

D&D as Art?

In what is surely a cosmic joke, I have thought more about fantasy role-playing games since I turned thirty.  But the character of thinking is not quite the same -- at least I can say that much.  I don't obsess over stats and manuals, nor attempt to create the ultimate character in some frenzy of misplaced alchemy (only to go on and greedily collect the treasures and kills to make said character a freaking god).

I don't even play much anymore, the drooling anticipation of the next marathon game a thing of the past.  Not that I would count on any of this as permanently in the past.  Periodically, I fantacize about playing the classics I never got to, or the game that has always been elusive, the complete adventures of a group of characters from novice to career's end.  Sometimes I even yearn to decorate my unpainted figurines.

Mine were never this good.

Most of my post-thirty D&D efforts have been directed at scenarios, which is to say more or less detailed sketches of adventures.   I've also devoted attention to designing my own mechanics, to facilitate a mode of play more plot and problem-solving based, with role-playing leaning toward the non-combatitive type.  I haven't been very successful in this regard, so mostly I just keep writing scenarios.

Writing "modules" has, for me, taken on a life of it's own, expanding it's ent-like tendrils beyond game preparation, becoming a hobby in it's own right.  I've even stumbled onto a principal component of active imagination, though I can't quite seem to find the missing parts that make the excercise psychologically productive. 

Mostly, I've got something like mythology without protagonists, though sometimes scenarios are written around specific "player characters."   I've got everything from sketches to fully finished adventures, nuclei if not bases of hundreds of hours of play.  And it's all one story, encompassing thousands of years on multiple worlds, with recurring characters and other motifs, interweaving plots and subplots.  In RPG parlance, it's a "megacampaign" (or "supercampaign"), a string of "campaigns," most of which encompass the adventuring career of a single group of characters. 

I've usually tried to leave open all but the most major of story arcs, and fates of most major characters.  In good DM form, I think enough can be reconfigured to accomodate the unanticipated moves of PC's, and a lot can feel open-ended even when it isn't -- a good DM is, after all, very often a trickster.

I don't know if all my modules are playable, so far has the excercise deviated from conception in those terms.  And this has made me ask, what else can this strange hobby be?   In addition to a potential psychological tool, my feeling that certain artistic processes and ways of thinking are at work has made me wonder, can this be art?

Gary Gygax would crush this line of inquiry:

Send anyone claiming that their RPG activity is an art form my way, and I'll gladly stick a pin in their head and deflate it just to have the satisfaction of the popping sound that makes….One might play a game artfully, but that makes neither the game nor its play art.

True enough, but I'm not so convinced that "RPG activity" cannot be art.  At the gaming table, it's theater, and even if it's bad theater, must it be so?  If the scenario is well written, the characters sufficiently developed, and the role-playing artful, well, why couldn't it be art?  I've never seen it happen, but if everyone at the table was a good actor and/or storyteller, why would the artistic potential be less than in other forms of semi-improvised theater?   I have felt something like music being created at the table, with participants riffing and playing off each other, via the characters they play, subject to the environment ("chart/score") they are in.  Why does the raw material need to be sound, or on a stage, to make art?

And scenario/world creation, minus players and mechanics, has the elements of a novel without protagonists:  characters, environments, plot and so on.  I consider many of Gygax's classic modules to be akin to pulp fantasy novels -- am I the only one who finds those fun to read?  I wouldn't call them art in a more strict sense, which perhaps explains Gygax's reticence, but what exactly did he think was missing from "RPG activity," prohibiting the leap from artful to art?  I see nothing fundamentally preventing this leap, and in the case of scenarios, if mechanics were harmoniously inserted into a well-written "module," with attention to design and conception, it could be an artful joy to read, with an inner coherence and beauty requiring no further actualization to become art.  

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  1. Have you heard about Nevermet Press ( I think you'd dig what they're doing. Matt (my beau) creates some of the artwork for them, and he can introduce you to the guy who runs it-- he's fabulous and 100% Not A Douchebag.

  2. This is a great train of thought, and I would like to see more folks discussing it.

    Also? Jill's right - I would love to see you bouncing ideas like this off the rest of the crew at NMP. :)

  3. Sweet! I'm Fabulous and 100% Not a Douche Bag.

    I have to say that... having never met you Jill... that you too are fabulous and 100% not a douche bag either.

    Now for mrlich... that's another matter ENTIRELY... ;D


  4. I take pride in my Not-A-Douchebagginess, and I can spot a fellow Not-A-Douchebag when I see/hear one.

    (For the record, Chimp (the owner of this here blog) is also Not-A-Douchebag certified.)

  5. OK.. now to turn the vandalizing of this wonderful blog around and leave some _productive_ comments...

    D&D as ART? Definately. I would venture to say even that Gygax may have made that comment so as to dissuade critics from criticizing him for trying to be an "artist". Are RPGs a trade? A craft? or an Art? I think its all on a sliding scale. Sure -- D&D's Chainmail Game or even (dare I say) 4E D&D in general is about as much as art as is the glossy, neon lights in Vegas. Fun. Definately. Art? Hmmm.. perhaps not.

    But then there things like Ptolus. Or... going way back... Barrier Peaks. Would I consider these akin to pulp novels? sure ! Heck, Savage Worlds even exploits that angle by BEING pulpy - perhaps that's why its so damn fun a system to play.

    I think the question of "is it art" is hard to answer because there's few things to compare it with. most art has ONE artists; and every one else is an observer - NOT part of the art. There are installation pieces that make the observers part of the art, but those are less common. Theater is definitely art, but again its scripted; and bends to the will of the director, being flavored by the actors. The audience sits and watches (usually). RPGs are not like theater for this reason. Still - I would venture that RPGs can be art, but are not art all the time. Many _approach_ being Art; most fail.

    I should also say that I think designing a game to be Art is a bad strategy. Games are supposed to be FUN and Challenging. In that order. If they also happen to be so nice / beautiful / horrorifying / exciting / suspenseful that they become - in your mind - ART, then so be it. It's a benny, and extra benefit that you are lucky to have been part of. The EXPERIENCE of RPGs is never the same twice; that's what I love about playing them - designing them is another story.

  6. Is it Art or merely artful? And what's the difference? If enough parts of an RPG are artfully done, does that make it art? What is Art? There's a lot of subjectivity to these questions. Semantics...

    Ezra Pound has an answer: "Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery, is of little worth." That's a bit elitist, perhaps, and I can counter-argue that "nothing is new" and culture is always derivative of culture. My search for that quote began with a remembrance of studying Pound in college; our professor said something about Pound claiming that essence of poetry was freshness, of making something new. I don't think this is exclusive to poetry; it applies to all "art" or anything that can be considered "artful", to use Gary's dodge. But the most "artful" games may be those that make the experience of gaming fresh again.

    I think a lot of it depends on intention, and the rest on innate talent: that is, if you want to design an "artful" game or play your character in an "artful" way, give it a shot! It won't hurt anything; you're very unlikely to draw negative reviews from some elite, obscure, and absurd critic of "Art", and your efforts will likely make you more "artful" at whatever it is you are trying to be "artful" at.

  7. Jill: Thanks, for everything. You should make a "100% Not A Douchebag" banner . . .

    Mr. Lich: Thanks to you also, for everything.

    Jonathan: Interesting comment about Gygax.

    Note that I was comparing RPG play to unscripted, or semi-scripted theater.

    I think it's an open question, to what degree designing a game to be art is related to the other goals you mention. Actually, the whole notion that any aspect of RPG's can be art is an open question, to me, because I've never seen it. But I see nothing absolutely prohibiting it, and if it were possible, I suspect both playable and unplayable forms would exist. An analogy might be an architectural drawing, which may be a complete work of art on it's own, which may or may not be related to whether the building could actually be built.

    Charles D: Mr. Pound's quote is not a definition of art, but a criteria for art's "worth," so if Pound also said the essence was freshness, is freshness worth?

    I don't tend to think in terms of the quote, and your extension of it, but I will now. So thanks.