Mutants in the Night TRPG public beta cover

Category Archives: Interview.
Interview “The Wave Is Building” – An Interview with DC.
June 16.

2019 Evan Torner  “It will be unfair

it will oppress them, it will hurt the people they love.
Mechanically, they can’t solve the real issues.
That’s what really makes it work.
You can’t solve a damn thing.
You can only walk into the goddamn trap and eat your carrot.” Small-press tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs) have experienced major shifts in the last several years.

Older TRPG discussion forums such as The Forge

Google+ and (soon) Story Games shuttering means that more designers now turn to the fraught spaces of social media and private Discord channels to organize their games.
The normalization of live-streaming, podcasting, and crowdfunding means that tabletop RPGs have new audiences consuming the medium and higher stakes for designers and players to attain.

The #MeToo movement emboldened many in the TRPG to take a stand against powerful

abusive individuals in the community.
Creator-driven platforms such as Patreon and connect game designers around the world with their respective niche co-designers, one $2 game jam purchase at a time.
And players and designers from marginalized backgrounds.

Primarily queer people and people of color (PoC)

are speaking their truths, whether it be on the Internet or in the mechanics of their work.
At the center of this activity lies one crucial figure: DC.
DC is a black, non-binary, queer American game designer hailing from Seattle, WA.
They distinguished themselves as an expert player within TRPG streaming communities as well as designer for their own Forged in the Dark game Mutants in the Night and the one-player mecha game plot ARMOR.

As a powerful new voice in TRPG design

their uncompromising and consequential work will continue to ripple through the community.
Evan Torner, representing Analog Game Studies, was able to ask them about a little bit of everything.
Image by DirtyRobot, Twitter: @1SLES Evan Torner: You are considered a TRPG polymath in many circles: a designer, streamer, community moderator, activist, and theorist.
Tell us more about yourself.
DC: My story is nomadic.
I’ve been moving around since I was 18.
Different couches, apartments, sometimes houses.
For a long time, I never felt comfortable in one spot for too long, even if I was set up with a job and a decent social life.
I always had a lack of passion.
Or at least I thought I did.
I’ve always been passionate about people.
I have a pretty scrambled education.
I went to K-12 like most people, but I’ve mostly been a “0 or 100” kind of person.
If something has my interest, I dive into it.
Even if my interest is brief, I really want to absorb and explore as much as I can.
I used to be pretty single-minded; [going after] one goal, usually something much bigger than me.
There was always some sort of plan to do something.
It was never about making money or acquiring fame.
It was always about pulling something off: a flawless team or achieving something that seemed unlikely to other people.
Times where I put myself to the grindstone in order to elevate myself just never worked out.
I hate capitalism.
It’s made my depression worse, it sent me into a spiral of drinking once, it made me value people less at times.
Or I should say, it gave me the choice to [value them less], and I took it.
I have depression and general anxiety.
I spent the time between 18-28 figuring that out, dealing with a lack of education surrounding treatment, being on bad meds, moving around, gaining and losing money (mostly losing), and trying not to die, even though that desire was the only consistent thing in my life.
But while all that was going on, I used my skills.
I learned about people, history, and music and how to do things that need to be done; how to wake up at 3 am to bike 4 miles to work; how to communicate the way I wanted to.
I didn’t really care where I was.
I cared about what I was absorbing.
It’s strange because I feel like I’m talking about a different person, and I kinda am.
I didn’t know myself too well.
It was all sort of building up to me finding myself.
Things haven’t been the same since.
I figured out that I’m non-binary and queer.
And I figured out how to live instead of just trying not to die.
And I figured out how to focus all of myself into my own hands, my own feet.
How to move the way I want to, so to speak.
The immortal edgelord in me is saying, “I’m my own sword.” I’d have to agree.
Life still isn’t easy, but it’s mine.
I chose most of this.
Wouldn’t have it any other way. cover of plot ARMOR by DC ET: You identify as a non-binary, queer designer.
How does that inform your design decisions.
Would you say that queer folx constitute a core part of your audience.
DC: Being non-binary and queer definitely influence my design, and yeah, my core audience is hashtag “the gays.” Mostly because I’m thinking of them when I design.
I bounce almost everything off of my communities, whether directly or mentally.
I want the gender binary to fuck off, and I want every queer existence to be validated.
But the realness comes from the fact that my identities intersect, and reveal empathy for communities that I’m not a direct part of.
The disabled community and the asexual community as examples.
I’m definitely a beginner when it comes to knowledge, but I have places to start.
Queer people are really good at giving a shit about other marginalized people (mostly if they’re PoC lol).
ET: Who are your role models in your struggle.
Is there a type of person to whom you tend to gravitate when you need guidance or inspiration.
DC:  I don’t know if this sounds conceited, but I look to the version of myself that I want to be.
Role models are kind of a strange concept.
I don’t want to depend on my mental version of a person’s good actions or behaviors.
I want to be taking a step forward toward being someone I want to be, instead.
I appreciate people and the amazing things that my friends do are wildly inspiring.
I can’t be perfect, or often even the person I’m striving to be in these cases.
But it feels like a more healthy goal.
Mutants in the Night TRPG public beta cover.

ET: You are working on a commercial release of the RPG Mutants in the Night

a game about post-apocalyptic mutants or, as you put it, “a game about finding.” You explicitly state in the game’s dev notes that “the setting provided was inspired by the plight of marginalized people around the world.
Mutants hold the key to representing folx of all marginalized backgrounds, and direct representations of current (yet archaic) laws that pressure and misrepresent those who are targeted by them.” How does the setting provoke discussion of the marginalized, and how do you support that with the game’s mechanics.

DC: People ask this question a lot

I like it, because it’s my favorite part about my game (or one of).
People know themselves better than I know them.
So designing is kinda like setting traps.
If you’re trying to catch a rabbit, you might lay down a carrot under a bin or some shit, and wait for a rabbit to come eat it.
Then you snatch the fucker and you got a rabbit.
To me, that is linear storytelling.
You got yourself a charming white guy with a decent tan, you put him on a tank or in a car and next to some woman who is literally only there to be hot and hetero, and you’ve got yourself a story.
It’s boring.
If you want to catch a specific rabbit rather than just any rabbit, you tell a specific story.
Layer two.
Salt and pepper the carrot to taste.
Salt-and-pepper-loving rabbit comes and has a fuckin’ blast.
You catch salt-and-pepper rabbit.
This is what I see happening in the space of younger designers.
Making games for their people.
This is where I started, and it’s a damn good place to be.
Where I ended up, though, was almost an accident.
Or maybe it was subconscious, because some layers were just side effects of my main mission.
It’s when you let each specific person choose their own bait.
But it only works with shared circumstances.
The shared circumstance is the trap itself.
We’re all stuck in the shit.
We’re the fuckin’ rabbits.
If you lean over to someone and say: “How’d you get stuck here?”, then you’ve got their hook.
So I designed a space where the beginning is why you’re going to be caught.
You’re a rabbit.
“It’s wabbit season!” The end is that you’re probably going to be eaten.
As rabbits, we know this well.
We share this fate.
So don’t ask a question.
Leave a blank.
If that made any sense at all — which it very well may have not — then you’ll see what happens with Mutants.
People know marginalization.
I just point to it and say: “Hey, you know that shit.
It’s that.
You know it better than anyone.” Then I say: “We all know that whatever we do in the time we spend will not end it.
We may push over a domino, but we won’t see the last one fall.” So all that’s left is to say: “It’s your time.” People mirror cities that they know, putting in direct forms of legal marginalization, as well as its lasting effects, right into their fictional communities.
They put in redlining, they put in colorism, they put in xenophobia, they put in police violence, they put in all of the evils that they see marginalized people deal with every day, and/or that they personally experience.
That’s why it’s still a viable game for white cishet dudes to play.
They know what marginalization looks like.
They don’t see that part as a problematic thing to deal with, ever.
It’s being there and only knowing the fictional, offensive, and vile representations of the people they now play.
That’s what makes them uncomfortable.
But the game teaches them reality, even if they play it through tropes.
[The game] will be unfair, it will oppress them, it will hurt the people they love.
Mechanically, they can’t solve the real issues.
That’s what really makes it work.
You can’t solve a damn thing.
You can only walk into the goddamn trap and eat your carrot.
“Catching your rabbit 3” by peganum CC-BY @Flickr ET: I like the way the system in Mutants grants player-characters agency without either fulfilling some kind of power fantasy or arbitrarily subjecting them to the will of the gamemaster.
What is a memorable anecdote from actual play of this game.

DC: My favorite parts of the AP (F L A R E) are scattered across so many moments

The ability for all the black people at the table to enjoy cultural references that were only for us, while the two white players were just enjoying us enjoying ourselves… those were some sweet moments.
That’s how it could be much more often in all walks of life.

ET: You have recently assembled a data trove on the business side of TRPGs

In addition, you have been a strong advocate for TRPG and larp creators earning revenue off their work more reflective of the actual labor that has gone into it.
You have organized many designers of color around making a fair wage for their original work and freelance work for others.
What are some striking findings you’ve made in this advocacy work.
DC: Something that became clear very quickly is that white people are so fucking scared.
Like, actually in fear of losing their whiteness.
It doesn’t matter how liberal they are.
If they haven’t come to understand that whiteness is not their culture, and that it is literally a brand given to them that means “you don’t have to deal with this shit,” then they reflexively become afraid of losing it once PoC start thriving.
And they do this because they know capitalism.
If we’re making it, then they’re losing it.
That’s how people see it; big time.
That’s why they’ll have us as guests at cons to show us off, as one or two skin colors on their [actual play streams] (APs), as signs that they don’t have that reflexive fear.
But most of them do, and it’s easy to see now.
Clear as day, in the face of the sun.
ET: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered DC: Whew.
PoC are scared too.
This fear is reasonable.
I’m not a messiah.
I’m not better than the last black person to get up and say something.
Historically, the US has made it clear that leaders get killed.
It’s literally why [Black Lives Matter] doesn’t have a singular social-facing figure or leader.

PoC take a long time to get to trust a movement

We’ve been burned by the system, by these white people who don’t understand the stakes for us at all, and by each other.
I’m not talkin’ about life and death.
I’m talkin’ about the courage it takes to step out and put yourself out there.
Whether or not you want it, people are going to judge you.
White people will say the same things in a seemingly harmless place like TRPGs (ha) that we’ve heard in our traumatic life experiences.
We’ll get the same treatment that we get any time we show up in a majority white space.
Being paraded around for a bit for liberal cred points, gaining little or no pay, or progress, and then pushed behind some mediocre white person.
And we say mediocre because if you open up a professional TRPG that you think sucks dingleberries, the credits will be full of white dudes who have done the same thing in tons of books.
So I get tons of pushback on certain things, from a place of true concern for both me and them.
“Don’t fuck up the money,” “You can’t say that,” “Will this even work?” etc etc.
I’ve been crushed by people dissecting my work’s possibility of failure with essays of personal fears.
I’ve dealt with myself getting mad at others getting mad, and we’re both mad because we know how hard we’re all dealing with shit.
So it’s just anger with no real release.
That’s a real challenge.
Being good enough for people to believe in me, so that I can transition that belief into belief in their own self and their community’s functionality.
It’s ridiculous (that this is how society has taught us), but the higher up I get in social capital, the more people will believe me when I say that they’re amazing.
So I have to keep climbing as people try to see me as less and less of a human being and more and more as some celebrity or persona.
I don’t want any of that stuff, honestly.
Fame and pride are mostly counterproductive to my goal.
I have to deal with it more from other people than I have to do from myself.
I know what I want.
I want enough money to have a nice place to live, to pay my Mom’s rent, and to not have to worry about survival.
And I want everyone else to have a path to that same future.
The last challenge is, funny enough, turning all of this work into opportunity.
I work for myself right now living off of the BLESSED purchases of my games, my patrons (y’all are a fucking godsend), and my will to raise all boats.
I need to sustain myself with stable work and a better self-care routine (apparently I’m a workaholic).
I’m getting better at the things I have control over, because I have a choice and I know what I want.
But with all the accolades that people see me get, the big fish don’t really give a damn.
I’m supported 100% by my community.
That’s not going to last, and it’s really important that the money I’m getting is redistributed back into the community.
A lot of people and organizations need it.
So I want to relieve everyone of their chosen duty to support me.
And I wanna pay my Mom’s goddamn rent.
Anibal Quijano.
Photo from Universidad Ricardo Palma ET: Anibal Quijano, a Peruvian sociologist who just passed away last year, describes something he calls the “coloniality of power,” in which the history of capitalism is absolutely interwoven with racism and exploitation.
The inequalities we see in the present are by design in many ways, and much of white fear revolves not only around loss of power and privilege, but also around (justified) equity and restitution after centuries of injustice.
No one wants to own their ancestors’ and contemporaries’ crimes, and especially not their consequences.
How do white progressives unintentionally collude with systems of marginalization and exploitation, from your perspective.
DC: This is a good question.
White people need to realize a few things in order to actually start seeing what being white really is.
It’s not watching PoC, honestly.
That’s a part of it, but understanding whiteness in a way that allows people to pass through the door of being an actual good person comes down to understanding what whiteness is.
Whiteness is a creation, a label specifically made to say: “These are the people who have rights and who are prioritized in this country.
Everyone else stands at our will.” No white person traces their family tree back to Whiteland, WL 90210.
The actual identity of white people is taken away and traded for privilege.
Italians weren’t white.
Irish people weren’t white.
Jewish people aren’t white, even if they have some white privileges.
It’s the reason that no one bats an eye at St.
Patrick’s Day or any Jewish holiday, or celebrations of actual cultures with actual heritage.
White people, as soon as “white” became a legal term, only have a record of doing harm to non-white people.
That’s literally it.
You can’t choose to stop being white, but you can choose to stop aligning with whiteness on a personal level.
Actively stop resting on the laurels of whiteness and step out to learn.
From books and articles and recorded talks.
Because people usually ask PoC, which is the peak racial irony of this country.
ET: What trends on Twitch,, Kickstarter, and other gaming-related platforms do you see as having a seismic effect on the TRPG communities right now.
DC: Less gatekeeping. game jams accept everyone.

Regressive TRPG personalities are too caught up in their own scams to deal with Twitch really is setting a better standard for pricing games.
It’s become the culture of the community, and it’s absolutely beautiful to see.
There’s a lot more work to do, but at least we have a solid foundation.
Twitter has been changing.
More people have been confident in speaking their truths, and to find one’s self laid bare in a new space, and then to be surrounded by people who support you.
Who feel similarly.
That opens doors, inside and out.
Communities, or even just friendships and new channels of respect are opened.
[My] goal is to show everyone that they can do what I do.
Not in the unhealthy workaholic way, but they can speak out and be heard.
They can form communities, turn their brilliant ideas into realities, and make some damn good games.
The wave is building.
People are gaining strength through community, and that strength is greater than one singular person will ever be.
They’re going to do things most people will never be bold enough to accomplish, because they’ll continue to work together to raise all boats.
At that point it’s a goddamn armada. screenshot, taken June 8 2019.
ET: From a fellow community-builder perspective, I absolutely agree that the goal is to show others that they can do it too: design games, foster communities, support each other into greatness.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that these communities are often bound to specific platforms: certain gaming conventions, to be sure, but also mailing lists, forums, private servers, streaming services, group chats, and so forth.
With the collapse of Google+, the indie TRPG scene is thinking a lot about how a community connected to a specific platform is born, develops, and dies.
Twitter is serving you well as of late, coinciding with the exodus of indie TRPG creators from Google+ starting last year (and our accounts were deleted on April 2) and from Facebook since the past three years.
How do you deal with this ongoing platform dependency.
Are our interfaces and algorithms a big factor in determining who we are.
DC: We’re locked into the system of social media.
Google+ became what it was by chance, not by design.
We have platforms which have similar functions but the culture has to be born, not created.
Whatever we try to create is really just a guideline to follow, as whatever platform truly formulates how we participate.
Take Discord for example.
I’ve done a lot to try and make a Discord server full of over 500 people to be a place where everyone can communicate, but it’s not.
It never will be.
The more people are talking, the faster things get shot up the channel’s message board.
It’s hard to follow.
Twitter only gives us 240 characters, so people end up making long threads.
A system that has a character limit makes it hard for conversations to happen.
Replies can go all over the place if someone doesn’t chain them.
Notifications are a mess since if you screen for mentions only, it doesn’t account for [retweets].
On top of all of that, you might not even see Tweets from people you’d like to because your settings are set a certain way.
Nothing beats in-person conversations.
The nuance of humanity is lost online.
Most of what we build is parasocial until you really dive into getting to know someone.
These are the only things we have, so we do our best.
But Twitter is like a slowly spreading poison for our community, and for people in general.
Discord has a great deal of exclusivity and size problems.
I don’t think there’s any other way right now, however.

ET: What sorts of TRPG theory do you find the most useful for your designs

DC: I don’t fuck with theory.
At least not formally.
There’s probably a lot of value in the dissections of xyz, but it’s just not how I learn.
I like to have conversations and play games.
Or even just read them.
Not a lot of people know, but I haven’t played Blades in the Dark.
I’ve played a good number of hacks, but that was after being about half way through designing Mutants.
My point is that the theory is clear on paper when I read it.
It’s one of my two strong design skills.
Being able to read the code and not just the words.
Nothing beats seeing it in action though, because people can manipulate that code in ways I’d never think of.
Time and time again.
My theory is to build toward what you actually want.
Push hard to find out what that thing is, but once you know you can just build toward it.
Every piece you place is there to say another thing or to open another door.
To highlight and hint and guide and allude to.
The rest of theory is probably really valuable, but for now this is all I think about designing games.
Textbook slacker.
Featured image [Untitled] by rein -e- Art CC-BY @ Flickr Evan Torner is Assistant Professor of German Studies at the University of Cincinnati, where he also serves as Undergraduate Director of German Studies and the Director of the UC Game Lab.
He is co-founder and an Editor of the journal Analog Game Studies.
To date, he has published 9 co-edited volumes and special journal issues, as well as over 40 articles and book chapters in various venues.
His primary fields of expertise include East German genre cinema, German film history, critical race theory, and science fiction.
His secondary fields of expertise include role-playing game studies, Nordic larp, cultural criticism, electronic music and second-language pedagogy.
African-AmericanAmerican indie RPGsBlades in the Darkcritical game designDCDungeon Commanderevan tornerForged in the DarkmarginalityMutants in the Nightnon-binaryplot ARMORqueerrole-playing gamestabletop role-playing gamestabletop RPGs 2 4 Next →.

Findings Of the 16 TRPGs examined

Category Archives: Tabletop Role-Playing Games.
Tabletop Role-Playing Games An Analysis of Early 1980s English Language Commercial TRPG Definitions.
December 23, 2019 José P.
Zagal While the publication of Dungeons& Dragons (D&D) did not simultaneously introduce the term “role-playing game” into the lexicon, it was a label that was applied shortly thereafter.
Since then, the definition of role-playing game has been debated and contested by scholars as well as fans and creators.
Mackay observed that “[e]very role- playing game rulebook has an obligatory section in the introduction usually titled ‘What is a Role-Playing Game?’ or ‘How to Play a Role-Playing Game.” If his claim is true, there are at least as many definitions of tabletop RPGs (TRPGs) as there have been TRPGs published.
In this article, rather than wade into the fray of definitional arguments, I examine how the term “role-playing game” was described in the rulebooks and manuals of the most significant English-language tabletop role-playing games first published in the early 1980s.
During the early 1980s, the fledgling TRPG industry grew significantly, consolidated itself, and became increasingly professionalized.

TRPGs were also seeing growth in their consumer/player base

Thus, there was arguably a need for these games to explain their nature, via explanations in their rulebooks, such that someone unfamiliar with them could understand what they were and learn to play from scratch.
This time period also coincided with a moral panic in the United States surrounding D&D.
While D&D was arguably its main focus, the moral panic did impact the young industry as a whole.
As a result, there was an increased interest in communicating and informing the media and public about TRPGs, if anything, to dispel common misconceptions and lies.
The above are possible explanations for the apparent ubiquity of a section in these games’ rulebooks dedicated to explaining what role-playing and role-playing games were.
However, Torner notes that for Mackay, this section is “a symptom of some broader anxiety circulating around the reception of the TRPG book.” Mackay thinks this definitional exercise “reveals the hobby’s inured suspicion, insecurities, and perhaps even paranoia that the goods they publish may never be purchased and used due to either a miasmatic ignorance or a profound misunderstanding on the part of the rest of society about what a role-playing game is.” Given D&D’s moral panic of the 1980s and the expansion of the industry’s consumer market, Mackay would be right to think that game publishers were concerned about their products being misunderstood.

A cursory examination of TRPGs from the 1990s

2000s, and onwards reveals that these explanatory sections are still used.
This leads us to one of the driving motivators of this work: Why are these kinds of sections so common to TRPGs.
And, as a follow up, what can we learn about these games, TRPGs, and games more broadly from these sections.
As a first step towards answering why these explanatory sections are so common, we will analyze how the most significant TRPGs published between 1980 and 1984 described and defined TRPGs.
We propose that an analysis of these explanatory sections can shed light on the diversity of thought and opinion within the industry at the time (what are these things we are selling?) with regards to what a role-playing game was.
Insights from this analysis could also better help us understand how the medium has evolved and how we currently conceive of it.

These early definitions provide us with a unique perspective on what TRPGs were

from the point of view of their creators, designers, and publishers.
In particular we feel that, as David Jara (2013) argues, .

Not enough attention has been paid to studying the texts and rulebooks of TRPGs

Methods To study the explanatory sections of TRPGs published between 1980 and 1984

I first identified and selected the games, then located/identified the explanatory sections from each game and, finally, analyzed the explanatory sections.
To select the games, I used the functionality of the popular site to search for TRPGs published between 1980 and 19842.
The search was filtered to display only “Core Rules (min needed to play).” The list of results were then narrowed down (and complemented) using Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds, Shannon Appelcline’s Designer’s and Dragons series, and Rick Swan’s The Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games (1990), to select the most significant games.
Cover of Rick Swan’s 1990 Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games Significance was determined by examining how Schick, Appelcline, .

And Swan each reported on and described the TRPGs I discuss below

Titles were considered for inclusion if they had some combination of commercial success, positive critical reception, influence in the industry/hobby, longevity (e.g.
multiple editions over the years), and favorable comparisons to other games in their subgenre (e.g.
most popular superhero TRPG).
For titles that appeared multiple times (e.g.
two or more editions within the selected time period), the earliest edition was used.
Titles that had a new edition released in the time frame considered, but were originally published prior to 1980 were not included.
This was done under the assumption that the sections of these books would be too similar to their 1970s-era edition and thus outside of the scope of this analysis.
Some exceptions were made to the above.
First, the 1981 “Moldvay” edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook was included.
D&D’s overwhelming importance to the hobby, its commercial success, and the change in editor (Tom Moldvay) from prior editions made a strong case for its inclusion.
A cursory examination of the corresponding text in the earlier edition edited by Eric Holmes showed that the text was different.
Similarly, the 2nd edition of Call of Cthulhu was used instead of the 1st edition.
The 1st edition was published as a boxed set that included a 16-page booklet for Chaosium’s house system Basic Role-Playing (BRP) while the 2nd edition did not include the insert.
Thus, it was felt that the 2nd edition was the first to have its own explanatory section, rather than the one that appears in BRP bundled with 1st edition Call of Cthulhu.
Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Role-Playing Game was also included because, despite its arguably limited commercial and critical success as a TRPG, it is a spin-off of the internationally best-selling Fighting Fantasy RPG gamebook series that began with the publication of the Warlock on Firetop Mountain.
These RPG gamebooks are notable because –– contrary to regular “choose-your-own-adventure” books –– they include a rule system that, used together with narrative choices, enables readers/players to determine how to proceed.  The inclusion of the role-playing game spin-off, printed in a small paperback format, was warranted due to its close relation with wildly successful RPG gamebook series.
The list of titles to examine was narrowed down to 16 games (see Table 1) and copies of each were obtained.
TRPG, Publisher Description of Game Call of Cthulhu 2nd Ed, Chaosium “…game based upon the works of H.
Lovecraft and a few others” Champions, Hero Games “Champions allows anyone to become a Superhero and fight for justice” Chill, Pacesetter “…takes the role playing game […] into the eerie realm of ghostly horror” D&D Basic Set (2nd Ed.), TSR “Players assume the roles of elves, dwarves or humans and travel through a fantastic world filled with danger and excitement.” Fighting Fantasy, Puffin Books “The world of Fighting Fantasy, peopled by Orcs, dragons, zombies and vampires, has captured the imagination of millions of readers world-wide.
[…] Now YOU can create your own Fighting Fantasy adventures and send your friends off on dangerous missions!” James Bond 007, Victory Games “Experience the life of a secret agent…work for MI6, the British Secret Service, or assume the role of the most famous agent of all…” Marvel Super Heroes, TSR “Now you too can join in the adventures of Spider-Man, Captain America, and other exciting Marvel Heroes!” Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP), ICE “.designed to introduce people to fantasy role playing (FRP) in J.
Tolkien’s Middle-earth” Paranoia, West End Games “an adventure role-playing game set in a darkly humorous future” RoleMaster, ICE “A complete set of fantasy role playing guidelines” Jorune, Skyrealms “a totally alien world with strange creatures and stranger abilities where you adventure to do daring deeds and fight for the common good in an effort to attain citizenship” Star Frontiers, TSR “each player in a Star Frontiers game plays a character, either a human or an alien living far in the future” Stormbringer, Chaosium “…go adventuring through [Michael Moorcock’s] fantasy world where magic is real and heroes exist.” Toon, West End Games “Remember all those great cartoons you used to watch every Saturday morning.
Now they’re on again…and you’re the star!” Top Secret, TSR “players assume the roles of various undercover agents carrying out the missions assigned by the Administrator of their agency or organization” Twilight: 2000, GDW “It’s set in a post-holocaust environment, but the characters are modern soldiers thrown onto their own resources by the gradual breakdown of the command structure and civilization” Table 1: Notable English-language TRPGs Published Between 1980-1984 Notes on the Selection Process The game selection process was not as straightforward as expected.
I wanted to be inclusive of different styles of games and publishers to reflect broadly what was expressed by the mainstream TRPG industry of the day.
However, I also wanted to keep the scope of games analyzed manageable.
This meant that I would not be able to cover all of the games published during that time frame.
Thus, I would have to determine what games were significant or not.
This turned out messier than initially expected.
This “messiness” was due in part to the state of the industry at the time.
The early 1980s were a transitionary period, with various companies growing from tiny entrepreneurial operations to small and mid-sized companies with budgets and greater experience in professional writing, editing, layout, and more.
Appelcline shows how the 1980-1984 period is one that saw the creation and early years of a few companies whose status as “important players” would be established later in the decade, e.g., Iron Crown Enterprises, Hero Games, and Palladium Books.
This time frame was also the incubation period for the “rise of the small press” that would follow (1984-1987) with companies like R.
Talsorian and Lion Rampant.
This meant examining games from small companies with limited budgets.
The games were significant in terms of what would come later, but determining whether or not those initial editions should be considered as significant was not straightforward.
For example Jorune’s first edition in 1984 was not widely distributed and the game would not see success and attention until it was renamed Skyrealms of Jorune and released in a 2nd edition merely a year later in 1985.
The newer edition was better edited and streamlined in terms of its rules and its publisher ran a serious advertising campaign that led to critical and commercial success.
Ultimately we decided to include Jorune due to its later success and the short period of time between its publication and that of the 2nd edition.
Arguably, due to the limited distribution and less professionalized layout of the 1st edition, Jorune could be considered a “draft” or precursor in the same way that nowadays people self-publish “fan” versions of games that are later developed and “republished.” All of this is to say that selection processes are inherently arbitrary and this one was no different.
However, articulating how the selection process was conducted and the challenging decisions it entailed can hopefully better contextualize the findings and insights we present later.
Identifying the Explanatory Section I assumed that all of the games had a section in their core rulebook titled something akin to “What is a Tabletop Role-Playing Game”.
This turned out not to be correct.
Thus, I needed to define what an explanatory section was in order to determine if it existed in a game (perhaps under a different title) such that I could select the text that corresponded to that section.
I defined “explanatory” as a section of the game’s text that explained or explicitly addressed any of the following: What a role-playing game was.
What role-playing was.
How a role-playing game is played.
Additionally, I defined “section” as a unit of text in the game’s rulebook that was delimited/delineated by textual or visual markers such as chapter headings, sub-headers, etc.
This was done to avoid having to select sentences or paragraphs within a section as well as select text that might be spread out across different parts of the game’s text(s).
As a final guideline, the section should be located at, or near, the “front” or “beginning” of the game.
Identifying the explanatory section was further complicated due to inconsistencies in the publication formats of different games.
Some games were published as a single stand-alone book (e.g., Toon), others were published as boxed games containing multiple items like booklets, maps, and hand-outs, (e.g.
Chill, Paranoia), and some were published in different formats during the years considered (e.g., both standalone book and boxed set).
So, for a game like Toon –– published as a single volume –– finding the relevant section of the text was simple: it appears early in the book.
For Chill and Paranoia, I had to locate the relevant text in the relevant booklet or insert that was part of the boxed set.
Of the games selected, I did not find an explanatory section for Rolemaster, something that merits further explanation later).
We also determined that Twilight: 2000 did not have a singular explanatory section.
Rather, its explanations on how to play were dispersed over multiple sections.
Once all the explanatory sections had been identified, they were transcribed for further analysis.
In addition to the text, it was also noted how long each section was (word count) as well as the title of the relevant section (or, in some cases, subsection).
Analysis Data analysis was performed on the transcribed explanatory texts using an iterative open coding process to bring themes to the surface from deep inside the data.
In this process, different codes were assigned to each sentence (or, in some cases, sentence fragment).
The labels and codes often overlapped and sometimes a single sentence might have multiple codes assigned to it.
As each text was analyzed, new codes emerged and existing ones were also modified.
This process continued until no new codes emerged.
This was an iterative process in which codes were continuously refined (together with their assignments).
So, a “new code” would then possibly be applied to a text coded earlier, with prior codes being refined and condensed.
The object of this process was to identify consistencies between codes (codes with similar meanings or pointing to the same basic idea) that would begin to reveal themes.
The findings will be reported on in further sections.
Findings Of the 16 TRPGs examined, all but two (Rolemaster and Twilight: 2000) had a section that met our definition for explanatory section.
These sections varied in length with the shortest (D&D) only 160 words in length while the longest (Top Secret) was 844 words long.
The average length was 402 words.
Only six of the 14 explanatory sections included a definition for role-playing game.
All of the explanatory sections explained what role- playing was and/or described how to role-play.
TRPG Title of Explanatory Section Word Count Includes Definition of RPG.
Call of Cthulhu 2nd Ed Purpose of the Game 525 Champions Roleplaying 339 Chill What is a Role-Playing Game.
165 D&D Basic Set (2nd Ed.) What the D&D Game is all About 160 Fighting Fantasy Introduction 421 James Bond 007 Role Playing in the World of James Bond 595 Marvel Super Heroes Welcome to the MARVEL SUPER HEROES Game, true believers.
456 MERP What is a Fantasy Role Playing Game.
833 Paranoia What is Role-Playing 220 RoleMaster Jorune Players and the Referee 203 Star Frontiers What the Game is About 285 No Stormbringer What is Fantasy Role-Playing 343 Yes Toon Welcome to TOON.
238 Yes Top Secret How to Use this Book 844 No Twilight: 2000 Table 2: Explanatory Sections Materiality and Fluidity One of the games I struggled most with when trying to identify an explanatory section was Rolemaster.
I decided that it did not.
However, the source of the challenge in identifying an explanatory section was due to an implicitly held answer to the question “What is a game?” For this study, I assumed a materialistic (and somewhat pragmatic) answer to the question “What is a game?” If someone were to walk into a store to purchase TRPG X, the answer to the question “What is TRPG X?” would consist of the physical objects they would be instructed to purchase by a reasonable sales clerk: a single book, set of books, a boxed set, etc.
Thus, for the purpose of this study, a TRPG is a physical product that includes everything the publisher deems necessary to play the game.
Determining whether or not Rolemaster had an explanatory section depended on the the answer to the question: What is Rolemaster, the game.
Rolemaster was initially conceived and developed by its publisher Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) as a series of supplements for other games.
Arms Law, the first supplement published in 1980, details a combat system designed to entirely replace the combat rules from another game (e.g.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons).
Over the following years, .

Four more books were released addressing different aspects of some TRPGs (e.g

magical spells, character classes).
ICE then also revised and combined some supplements into new books (e.g., “Arms Law” and “Claw Law” became “Arms Law & Claw Law”).
Finally, as these books were published, some were then bundled in a boxed set now described as a self-contained game: Rolemaster. Between 1982 and 1984, ICE published at least three different versions of the same (1st Edition) Rolemaster boxed set with differing contents.
So, which boxed set constitutes the canonical version of 1st Edition of Rolemaster.
And, does such a thing as the game “Rolemaster” exist in a materially significant way when each supplement is published separately and they were designed to be used independently of each other in other games.
As Swan notes in his review, “Rolemaster reads more like a collection of supplements than an integrated system” and, though the game would eventually become better integrated and more coherent, .

Its early published state (and intended use) highlight the fluidity of TRPGs as a form

At what point did Rolemaster become its own game.
And, how do we make sense of the material game that is Rolemaster when we know that it is constituted simply by bundling together independent separate supplements.
From our earlier example, a person could have walked out with all the supplements (i.e., the contexts of the boxed set) but not the box, and been none the wiser that they had just purchased the TRPG Rolemaster.
How much does the branding and box really matter.
The TRPG industry has examples of the opposite of bundling to create a game.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) was published as three stand-alone books over a few years: the Monster Manual in 1977; Player’s Handbook in 1978; Dungeon Master’s Guide in1979.
However, the Monster Manual gives no indication to its readers that it constitutes 1/3 of a game.
It isn’t until the 2nd book that readers can learn that the Player’s Handbook will “complement the other two parts of the whole.” Here, a game was conceived of as a whole but published over a non-trivial amount of time as three separate books.
This publishing model seems ludicrous in the context of other games.  If we consider the materiality of a game to consist of all the books deemed necessary to play the game, then AD&D was purchasable only in parts and, theoretically, unplayable until the final book was published.
Imagine purchasing a boardgame over a few years with separate purchases for different parts of the game (e.g.
first just the board, then tokens and 2/3 of the rulebook, finally the remaining 1/3 of the rulebook and two specialized decks of cards).
Each of the AD&D books were not actually unusable; the fluidity in the practice of playing TRPGs meant that most players simply adapted and modified their play practices to incorporate or change the new rules as they saw fit.
In the case of AD&D, its similarities to Dungeons & Dragons made this an almost trivial task.
Chaosium’s BRP, modern edition.
Another example that complicates the materiality of a TRPG is Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing (BRP) I chose not to include BRP in our analysis because of how it was distributed initially.
It was first published as a 16-page booklet that condensed the rules used in RuneQuest and was distributed as an insert in other boxed editions of games published by Chaosium (e.g., RuneQuest 2nd Edition and Call of Cthulhu).
Because BRP was used as a generic “house system” by Chaosium for its other games, it is perhaps not deserving of inclusion as a stand-alone game for the scope of time being examined.
However, that is no longer the case – with BRP made available for purchase as a stand-alone game (and supported by additional supplements).
What does it mean for a “system” to become a game.
If we had to identify the moment when that occurs, when would it be.
If we assume that BRP, as published, is a generic system designed as such: is it part of a game.
What is it lacking in order to become a game.
Tellingly, Swan’s guide does not feature an entry for BRP.
It does, however, include an entry for the boxed game Worlds of Wonder published in 1982.
The Worlds of Wonder box includes four booklets.
The first is Basic Role Playing.
The remaining books “each detail a specific environment and add rules for skills, combat techniques, and background material appropriate to each setting”: Magic World for fantasy, Future World for sci-fi, and Super World for comic book heroes.
Is Worlds of Wonder a game.
Or does Worlds of Wonder include four games.
Or is it, as described on the box, “3 Interchangeable Role- Playing Games in 1 Box!” While the notion that TRPGs are fluid is not novel, I had not realized the extent to which that fluidity also extended to their materiality and the implications of this for our analysis.
In other words, the question of when is a system a game (and when not?) is salient in TRPGs due to their flexibility in terms of play practice: if players don’t like AD&D’s combat system, just “swap it out” for the system described in Arms Law.
If you like the system used in James Bond 007, but don’t care for the universe and characters, “swap it out” for the one from the TV show Mission Impossible instead.
One simply does not see this in most other kinds of games.
Ontological Implications Consider the context of videogames.
When analyzing a game (e.g.
Fortnite), should we try to analyze and understand the game separately from the game engine (e.g.
Unreal) on which it is implemented.
Should we consider Unreal as a game in-and- of itself.
Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing, ICE’s Rolemaster, and TSR’s AD&D printed books all seem to function and operate like a game engine that can be downloaded and installed on a computer.
They are each mostly systems with the detailed setting, characters, background material available separately via other products.
AD&D’s Player Handbook’s rules are for playing a fantasy-based game, but the details –– In what world does the game take place.
Who are the main characters.
What is the history and culture?, etc.
–– are all absent.
The details are all there to be created by the players (including the Dungeon Master or referee).
This seems similar to how Unreal Engine comes without setting, characters, etc.
while providing a “system” for managing lots of the aspects of playing videogames (e.g.
camera, controls, rendering, physics, shooting, etc.).
Unreal Engine can be used to create all kinds of game experiences.
Similarly with AD&D and the others, one is intended to just ignore rules one does not  like.
Unreal Engine also has affordances for certain kinds of play and game experiences (e.g., first-person shooters) in the same way that AD&D and Rolemaster have affordances for fantasy.
However, we do not call Unreal a game and we do call AD&D a game.
I do not have a good answer, but it is an issue deserving of further study and exploration in game studies.
Perhaps it has to do with the sense that the “game-ness” of TRPGs is sometimes contested as they are often described as border-line cases for what games are (Juul 2003; Salen and Zimmerman 2004, 81).
In this sense, TRPGs as “not-quite-games” would arguably challenge notions of “game-ness” such as whether or not a collection of rules and mechanics (i.e., a “system” or “engine”) can be considered a game.
If we consider, as a thought experiment, that TRPGs are not games, but rather are a medium of their own (related, but distinct from other games).
What would that look like in the context of definitions of TRPGs are expressed in different games by their creators.
TRPGS as a Medium By the early 1980s, the overall size of the industry, its sales numbers, and the subject matter diversity of its products help solidify the notion that TRPGs were a “thing” in- and-of-themselves.
There is some support for this in the definitions examined.
Many of the games’ definitions and explanations delineate a space for what TRPGs are that places them directly in relation to other media.

These definitions often broadly take the form “TRPGs are similar to

but different because of ”.
The most common media referents observed were boardgames and traditional narrative media (e.g.
novels, plays, movies).
D&D is described as a game that “unlike others, does not use a playing board or actual playing pieces.” Similarly, in Paranoia “[t]here is neither board nor playing pieces.” In Star Frontiers, the player-controlled characters are “[i]n some ways […] like the pieces used in other games, but players in a role-playing game do not simply roll dice and move pieces around on a board.” According to Stormbringer, these are games where “the action takes place more in the imagination of the players than on some gameboard in front of them” Boardgames are used as a contrast in terms of their materiality: the physical objects required to play are different than those generally used or seen in other games the reader may be familiar with.
However, materiality is not the only point of distinction.
TRPGs are also different from boardgames in their goal structures: TRPGs are not games about winning or losing.
Champions “is fundamentally different from the usual game [sic] that people play, like chess or poker.
When playing chess or poker the object is to win, to beat your opponent.
The object of a role playing game is to have fun and be creative while interacting with your friends.” In Star Frontiers, “[u]nlike many other games, there is no clear winner or loser” and in Top Secret “[t]here is no defined “winner” as in most other games.” So.

TRPGs are games unlike other games: you don’t use boards and pieces

the action takes place in your imagination, and there are no winners and losers.
But, .

TRPGs are also a form of narrative media

According to Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP): “[t]he easiest way to understand a role playing game is to think of it as a work of fiction such as a novel (or a play, or a movie, etc.).
In a novel the author determines the setting of the novel along with the actions of all of the characters and thus the plot; however, in a role-playing game, the author (called the Gamemaster) only determines the setting and some of the basic elements of the plot.
The actions of the characters (and thus the plot) are determined during the game by the game “players” and the Gamemaster.” Similarly, the James Bond 007 TRPG describes itself as “much like an improvisational theater piece in which the actors […] have created their characters out of their heads and the director has written the script, but only as a loose outline of what is to happen.
[…] The director creates the script as an outline for the actor’s actions.
The actors play only the major parts of the heroes while all the villains and minor parts are played by the director.
[…] Only when the whole script has been acted out will the actors and director know how things came out in the end.
A stage play, however, is much more formally structured than a role playing game.” In the case of Jorune, the comparison is made to both movies and novels: “Fantasy role-playing (what you’re about to do) is like living out the plot of a movie […] Unlike a movie, the credits of a fantasy game never roll “The End”.
Play only ends when players want it to.” Additionally, “[j]ust as each book must have an author, Jorune requires a referee” However, “[t]he referee does not have absolute control over players or plot (as the author of a book does).” So, TRPGs are a form of narrative media unlike other forms of narrative media: the story is created collaboratively from a loose outline and it does not have to end.
A Medium of Pretending and Speaking While these early definitions establish TRPGs in relation other media, they also explained what this medium “was about” and how players should engage in it.
To participate in books, you need to read.
For movies, you need to watch.
For TRPGs, the primary way of participating is to pretend.
“In a roleplaying game, you pretend to be a hero, pirate, space pilot, or whatever… just like when you were a kid.
The difference is that you have rules.
Roleplaying rules can be simple (and they don’t get any simpler than TOON), or they can fill several volumes.
It doesn’t matter.
Roleplaying is just “let’s pretend.” The call-back to childhood is not unique to Toon, as above.
One also spots it in Chill: “[r]emember when you used to play “make-believe” as a child.
You were a cowboy, an Indian princess, a pirate or a nurse – anyone who appealed to your fancy.
In the world of imagination, you became other characters, doing what they did, feeling what they felt.” Sometimes the activity of pretending is grounded in a particular imaginary place or time.
Fighting Fantasy’s explanation begins with a question: “What would it really be like to live in a medieval fantasy world?” Marvel Super Heroes, on the other hand, instructs the reader that, “[a]s a player, you pretend to be your favorite Marvel Comics super hero, using his super powers to fight deadly foes like the Hobgoblin, Viper, and Doctor Octopus.
You can be the Thing, Captain America, or even me, your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.” If the primary activity of a TRPG is to pretend, the second most important activity is speaking.
This is because, in Call of Cthulhu, “[m]ost of the play is verbal exchange.
The players tell the referee what they wish or intend to do.
The referee tells them if they can or may do it, and if not, what happens instead.” TRPGs are played almost entirely by speaking.
In a typical Toon TRPG session, “[a]s the [Referee] describes the setting and events of the adventure, each player reacts, describing what his or her character does.
The [Referee] determines what happens because of the player’s actions.
The players respond…and so on until the end of the [adventure].” Similarly, in Champions, “[t]he Game Master will describe to the players the settings they find themselves in.
The players will assume the role of the characters that they have created.
The players will make up dialogue on the spot, trying to talk and act as their characters would.” As described in James Bond 007, TRPGs are games in which “[t]he action will be described verbally” So, to engage with a TRPG participants must pretend and they must also express themselves verbally.
However, what personal skills or attributes does this entail.
There is rarely mention of rhetoric, being able to improvise or be verbally articulate.
Rather, players are expected to bring their imagination to the table – the ability to imagine things is what is called out most often.
The agency in playing a TRPG comes from imagination.
All you really need to play are, according to D&D, the “rules, the dice included in this set, pencil and paper, graph paper, and imagination.” Similarly in Paranoia: “This sort of game is played with paper, pencil, and the imagination.” This is because, as in Stormbringer, “the action takes place more in the imagination of the players than on some gameboard in front of them.” MERP states: “In short, in a FRP game the players leave the real world behind for a while, and enter a world where the fantastic is real and reality is limited only by the imagination of the [referee] and the players themselves.” This is challenging for players because, in Chill, “In your imagination, you act and feel just like the character you pretend to be”] and, in Call of Cthulhu, “Operating within the limits of their characters presses the imagination of every player.” In other words, the act of imagining (and supporting in your imagination) a fictional reality together with that of the character you are pretending to be, is difficult and taxing.
Rules Optional TRPGs are also described as distinct from activities of pure imagination in that they have rules.
Rules exist to ensure fairness.
In Chill, “The rules of the game, some dice, and a referee help decide whether your characters succeeds in what he or she is trying to do.
In a role-playing game, the bad guys do fall down when you shoot them; the referee makes sure they play by the rules!” Rules are also necessary to establish boundaries and limitations like in Stormbringer: “The game rules establish a possible range of behavior both for characters and GM” (St.
Andre and Perrin 1981, 6).
More importantly, in Champions, the rules “should enhance the interaction between the players and the [referee].
The rules are simply a tool so that everyone can understand the actions of the characters.” However, as critical as rules are in TRPGs, many of the definitions agree that they are also unimportant.
According to Marvel Super Heroes: “Don’t memorize the rules, just read them and get a general idea of what’s going on.
Then get a few friends, explain the basic ideas to them, and start playing.
If somebody asks a question, look it up.
If you’re not sure how something works, just try it.
It’s easier to understand once you start playing and doing things.” This is because, in Call of Cthulhu, “[t]he actual game rules are important only where there is some question of success or failure, for the rules are the agreed-upon ‘reality’ which makes the game world understandable.” Thus, if the players agree to a different ‘reality’, because they do not like the rules for some reason, they should ignore them and use their own.
In Fighting Fantasy, the recommendation is that “once readers have got the hang of the rules, there is no limit to how they can be modified and adapted to give games either greater realism or faster-moving play.
Indeed no two people ever play a role-playing game the same way.
Inventing and modifying the rules is all part of the fun!” TRPGS as Games Having discussed how TRPGs are positioned as games because they have rules that separate them from other forms of pretend play, we now examine two characteristics of TRPGs as games that were salient in the definitions examined.
Games of Progression Jon Peterson argued that D&D attracted attention partly due to the concept of character progression: player’s characters get to improve the more they play.
This design element would become influential across a variety of games to come.  Thus, its mention in the introductory sections of D&D, Top Secret, and Star Frontiers is unsurprising: In D&D: “Characters gain experience by overcoming perils and recovering treasures.
As characters gain experience, they grow in power and ability” In Top Secret: “In each mission the agents gain experience (which increases the abilities of the agents), and are paid if the mission is successful (the money can be used to purchase sophisticated espionage equipment).
An interconnected series of such missions is called a campaign” In Star Frontiers: “A skillful player who uses the same character in several adventures will see that character rewarded, becoming richer, more powerful and able to handle more difficult missions” What is surprising is that progression systems do not appear in the definitions for any of the other games.
Additionally, all three of the above games were published by the same company (TSR).
It is not the case that the other games do not have systems for character progression.
They do.
Rather, their existence is not front-loaded in their explanations about what TRPGs are.
A progression system was perhaps, at this point in time, no longer enough of a novelty that there was a perceived need to bring it up when describing what a TRPG is.
Games of Labor and Responsibility A second salient characteristic was that TRPGs require one of the players to assume a special role: referee (i.e., dungeon master, game master, keeper, etc.).
The role was often explained in terms of what it required – e.g.
play the part of non-player characters, enforce rules, and so on.
However, there were some nuances in how this was presented.
First, it is clear that the role of referee was not antagonistic towards the other players.
This reflects an interest in shifting away from the early adversarial TRPGs play practices in which the referees attempted to defeat players.
Rather, the referee’s main goal is to provide a fair challenge.
Top Secret recommends “the [referee] should plan to present smaller risks and correspondingly small rewards at the beginning of the campaign, and increase the risks and rewards as the player characters become more powerful and experienced” because “the situations designed must not be so deadly that no one will want to play the game!” In Call of Cthulhu, “It is the keeper’s duty to make the opposition smart and mean, or there will be little challenge for the players, and they will be bored.
But the referee must refrain from arbitrary decisions even if the players out-wit, out-guess, or out-fight him in the end.” Second, the role of referee is one that could (and perhaps should) be shared amongst players.
In Stormbringer, “At different times a person can be both player and GM.” Similarly, in Top Secret, “[a]fter the rules become familiar, groups playing Top Secret may wish to have additional Admins in the campaign.
There is no reason why this cannot be done, with each Admin running a separate organization with its own agents.
Whether they cooperate (such as the various branches of British intelligence) or whether they compete (for example, the CIA and the KGB) would be up to the players.” Third, there is an acknowledgement that role of referee is labor-intensive and bears a significant amount of responsibility and prior preparation.
Rasmussen admits in Top Secret, that “The Administrator (abbreviated as “Admin”) is the participant who must do the most work.
He or she must provide the mental and physical labor of completing the game within the framework provided.” In fact, “[t]he players cannot begin the game until the Admin has completed his or her design work.” Similarly in MERP, “The Gamemaster has to do a lot of preparation before the game is actually played.
He must develop the setting and scenarios for the play of the game, using the game rules, and either material of his own design or commercially available play aids.” And similarly in Paranoia, it is only “When the gamemaster is prepared” that “the gamemaster and players [can] get together for a game session.” Discussion Much of what the explanatory sections reveal has been discussed and presented before: the centrality of verbal discourse as play, the importance of imagination in helping players determine what their characters can do, the special role of the game master/referee in adjudicating rules and controlling everything that is not a player’s character, and the flexibility/negotiability of the rules.

Of TRPGs includes wargames as a significant precursor. However

wargames were not the game-referent used.
It was boardgames.
Had we not known better, we could have argued that boardgames, not wargames, were the precursor to TRPGs and we could easily create a pseudo-definition that made that comparison: TRPGs are like wargames but instead of controlling an army, you only control one character and you don’t need miniatures/figures or a map or board.
So, why the omission.
We can speculate that perhaps the market/population of boardgame players at the time was larger than that of wargame players.
Thus, explaining TRPGs in the context of boardgames would be more effective.
Or perhaps there were negative perceptions, real or imagined, associated with wargames that TRPGs were trying to distance themselves from.
It might also be the case that the connection to wargames was being forgotten as new authors/designers who had little to no prior experience with wargames joined the industry.
The salience of labor, in the context of the referee, is interesting.
While there have been discussions of the role of the referee, there is little work on the role of the referee in terms of the labor and preparation needed in order for everyone to play.
Player labor is often discussed in the context of fan labor: “value generation by fans of a media property, such as playtesting, word-of-mouth marketing, or community moderation;” playing as labor; or professional play.
We think that this kind of labor should be explored in further detail.
Evan Torner argues that in the 1990s, the explanatory sections of TRPGs changed with “meticulous descriptions of the gamemaster’s dominant role” becoming less common.
The implication is that newer TRPGs were exploring new modes of role-play that de-emphasized the power and control that a referee held, i.e., the referee’s dominant role was no longer desirable or acceptable in TRPG play.
There is an alternate/additional explanation to this implication – rather than it being an issue of power and control, the shift lies in a desire to reduce or distribute the labor required to play.
A game that requires one of its players to engage in significant labor prior to play is going to face a higher barrier to success than one that does not.
The industry may have been responding to this issue – and we can see evidence of this in Top Secret’s recommendation that players “may wish to have additional Admins in the campaign.” and in Stormbringer’s recommendation that “[a]t different times a person can be both player and GM.” Over the next few years, new games would be created and released that depended on “players taking on some of the functions of the [referee]” thus making them more accessible and less dependent on the need for one player to assume a disproportionate amount of labor in order for everyone to play.
Finally, it is surprising to find the sheer number of references made to other narrative media as points of comparison for TRPGs.
My surprise was due to the persistent narrative that it was not until the 1990s that TRPGs shifted towards “storytelling games – where plot and character were more important than exploration and combat.”  While it is undeniable that the 1990s saw the publication of several TRPGs that were explicitly marketed as “storytelling games”, the importance of plot and character are clearly laid out in many of the games we examined, often via the reference to novels, movies, and acting, as described earlier.
We also found that combat and exploration were not central to the explanatory sections examined.
The word “combat” only appears twice in explanatory sections (MERP and Stormbringer).
In the case of Stormbringer, its appearance is cursory and limited to explaining how you might have to occasionally roll some dice to determine the “outcomes of such things as combat, exploration, or random events” For MERP, combat is just one element in a list of things that role playing games deal with.
Similarly, Torner argues that the 1990s saw the introduction of children’s chasing game of “cowboys and Indians” or “cops and robbers” in TRPGs explanatory sections. According to him, the function of this was to “bridge between child’s play and adult play, activating prior knowledge to comfort the reading subject who may be a first-time player.” We find evidence of this strategy already in the games studied.
However, the reference here was not to specific children’s games – but rather to the imaginative nature of child’s play.
Make-believe and games of pretend are the intended connection to child’s play.
It would be interesting to know the reasons for this perceived shift (from pretend to chasing).
Limitations There are limitations to this work.
In additional to the methodological challenges described earlier, it is important to keep in mind that the way a game’s creators chose to explain and present their games was not limited simply to the explanatory sections analyzed here.
For example, there was often information on the covers/back covers of the books and boxes.
Or, information might be presented in additional parts of the rulebooks.
Similarly, we often saw additional rhetorical strategies at play.
For example, prior to the explanatory section in Marvel Super Heroes, there is a full-page script of play that is illustrated with comic-book panels that alternate between showing players sitting around a table playing the game and depicting the imagined game situation.
Top Secret’s explanatory section is preceded by a “memo” addressed to newly an unnamed newly recruited game character, thus drawing the reader into the fictional world the game takes place in.
A more comprehensive study of how TRPGs explain and present themselves to their readers would have to account for these (and other) devices in addition to the explanatory sections studied here.
Conclusions I began this work assuming Mackay’s observation that “[e]very role-playing game rulebook has an obligatory section in the introduction usually titled ‘What is a Role- Playing Game?’ or ‘How to Play a Role-Playing Game” was true.
For the period of time examined, Mackay’s observation is incorrect or an oversimplification.
Two of the 16 games did not have an explanatory section.
Of those that did, slightly less than half had a definition of role-playing game.
We believe these explanatory sections are more similar to reading the rules for a boardgame than revelatory of the industry’s “inured suspicion, insecurities, and perhaps even paranoia that the goods they publish may never be purchased.” Despite the expected commonalities amongst different explanatory sections, I was also surprised by their diversity in terms of how they went about explaining and the referents and examples used.
My analysis also highlights some important questions regarding the materiality of TRPGs as games and challenged our notions of games and game systems as separate entities.
In these explanatory sections, I found evidence that many ideas and notions that would later become central or pivotal to the identity of TRPGs, were already present.
This shows that either the current narratives regarding the change and evolution of TRPGs leading into the 1990s are incorrect, or that there is a need for a more nuanced and careful understanding.
If we return to our initial motivating question –– why do these games have these kinds of explanatory sections in the first place.
–– one might state that we should perform a more granular analysis that more precisely explains what we mean by an “explanatory section” and complement this work with additional sources and context.
This work is a first step in that direction.
Featured image by Tom Simpson “1983 ad for FASAs Star Trek The Roleplaying Game.” cc-BY @ Flickr José P.
Zagal, Ph.
D. is a Professor and Lecturer in Entertainment Arts Engineering at the University of Utah.
He has published, among other books and articles, Role-Playing Game Studies: Transmedia Foundations (edited with Sebastian Deterding; Routledge, 2018) and Ludoliteracy (ETC Press, 2010).
1980sCall of Cthulhudefinitionsgame responsibilitiesgames of progressionhistoryJames Bond 007JorunelabormanualsMarvel Super HeroespretendStormbringertabletop role-playing gamesTop SecretTRPGs 2 25 Next →.

Kathryn Ringland also explores digital realms in her essay

Volume IV, Issue III.

Game Interfaces as Disabling Infrastructures – David Parisi Who Has Access

Making Accessible Play Spaces for Children With Autism – Kathryn E

Ringland Access to the Page: Queer and Disabled Characters in Dungeons & Dragons – Michael Stokes This month’s issue of Analog Game Studies is concerned with accessibility in games.
As usual, we push against the binary divide between analog and digital, and here embrace “analog” as an entry point for expanding our approach to diversity in games by moving beyond representation on the digital screen or the printed page and looking instead to the material affordances and limitations of games as systems.
We are especially concerned with the ways in which the material human body becomes interpolated into games, and what that means for players, especially those who may not be able-bodied or neurotypical.
In “Game Interfaces as Disabling Infrastructures,” David Parisi explores the ways in which videogame interfaces cannot be used by all bodies and therefore become key factors in disabling many players.
Engaging with critiques of cybernetics and neoliberalism, Parisi argues for modes of accessibility that do not assume that the player has failed the system, or that the player must be transformed into a “productive” body in service of capital.
Kathryn Ringland also explores digital realms in her essay, “Who Has Access.
Making Accessible Play Spaces in Minecraft for Children with Autism,” but shows how game interfaces have the potential to be enabling rather than disabling.
Here, Ringland shares her ethnographic research on the Minecraft server known as “Autcraft,” where autistic players are able to play a game known for mitigating physical barriers to access, on a server that simultaneously mitigates social barriers to access.
Finally, Michael Stokes delves deep into tabletop role-playing games in “Access to the Page: Queer and Disabled Characters in Dungeons & Dragons.” Stokes engages close readings of the handbooks for Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder in order to critique the ways in which the rule systems themselves foreclose accessibility to queer and disabled characters.
We hope that this issue will encourage conversations in disability studies around games, while simultaneously encouraging game studies to adopt an increasingly reflexive approach to the material limitations of player bodies as they interact with game interfaces, communities, and rule systems.
We also acknowledge the limitations of the academic publishing process—even for a middle-state publishing model such as ours—and how this can often be disabling to those whose voices ought to have a central place in these conversations.
Such critical conversations in game studies ought not to be staged only in special issues and so it is our hope that this month’s articles—written by contributors who identify as disabled and/or whose lives are otherwise imbricated with issues of accessibility—will contribute to and instigate ongoing conversations about accessibility in games here at AGS.
-The Editors May 30, 2017 Featured image “fantasy” by Sweetie187 @Flickr CC BY.

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