Is There A Text in this Dungeon?

I’ll lead with the idea I want to explore: building on a 2013 paper that explores what it means to create a digital resource for theatre, I want to think about where the text is for a tabletop gaming session, using my own experience as the main example.

The paper that started me thinking down this direction is the many-authored “Visualizing Theatrical Text,” which is about the authors’ SET (Simulated Environment for Theatre).  The details behind SET aren’t really important for current purposes (although it’s certainly an interesting system, and the article is a very accessible introduction to it). Rather, what I want to focus on is the impetus for its creation. Essentially, the article’s authors felt that existing digital tools for theatre (including their own previous efforts) were too centred around the script as the core text. I think that this perspective is pretty common for theatre, and one that I, largely ignorant of theatre study, tend to default towards: the core of a play is its written form, and the experience of it is the individual performance, in much the way that the written score and the musical performance function.

The problem with this view, though, is three-fold. First, it obscures the individual efforts of production and performance that go into each rendition of a play. Second, it means that the basic unit of a play is the individual block of speech, since that’s what tends to get the most attention in a play script. And third, of particular focus of the authors here, it limits what the digital tools can offer if we envision them as just a replication of the written form.

Their solution is to create a tool that centers around action as the basic unit of theatre, and the line of action as the organizing focus. But again, I don’t want to go too far into that discussion, because what interests me here most is the central question–how does emphasis on performance change what we view as the main text?

In a previous post, I questioned at some length what a videogame variorum would look like. The question of what a game text may be is closely related. For videogames specifically, the question of the core text has an obvious answer. In the beginning, it was the arcade cabinet, or the home console machine. Then it was the cartridge, or the disc. Now that we’re moving away from the physical copy, we’re back in the mainframe days, where the core text is a program, a unified series of code. And yet, it’s not uncommon for a definition of game to emphasize that the game doesn’t exist except in action, in performance–that the collection of code constitutes a game only when that game is being played or part of an active culture of players.

The variorum concept complicates the core text in some ways, while ultimately reaffirming it. A single videogame can have multiple versions, remakes, ports, and updates, so its code is less a finished product and more something constantly evolving. (Not unlike, say, the script of a Shakespeare play.) And yet, while there is not perhaps a single definitive version of the text, the variorum’s existence seems to assume that a core text exists, even if it can only be found in a collection of variations. How far can we push that core before it’s too diffuse to be considered a center?

I think that, for most things related to performance, our concept of what that performance’s root text is depends on the medium through which most people access it, and our understanding of that medium. Most people experience a Shakespeare play through a copy of the script over the play’s performance, so that’s how we understand its root; in comparison, for most movies, we see the recorded final version over the script, which is why we prioritize the film as the root text. Likewise, for a sport event, it’s the broadcast that takes precedent. For a concert, it’s the song track. The important thing here is that, frequently, while we are interested in as unmediated an experience as possible for various reasons, we’re more than willing to eschew that direct experience in favour of what we’re familiar with.

Another level of complication in performance and text comes in, however, when the subjectivity of the performance is emphasized. Here, I’m thinking of Twitch streams and Let’s Play videos; even though I imagine there are a lot of games experienced more frequently as recorded videos than as games people have played, we don’t confuse the player/record with the game itself. Rather, we form opinions on the player’s performance within the game, much as we do with sports celebrities, or actors. It’s an issue, I think, of authority, that we recognize that the game exists in an “official” capacity prior to their performance. Or to look at it a different way, even if some mods are deemed necessary to play a game, we can still distinguish between the  modded and unmodded game as the core text.

So all of that is me talking out of a body part uncomfortably close to my posterior. What I’d really like to talk about is how this core text and performance issue morphs again when it comes to tabletop gaming, using a session I conducted recently as an example. Using the rule system described in Worlds of Peril (which, for those in the know, is an Apocalypse World variant designed around superheroes), I ran the players through a Marvel-based storyline, wherein they attempted to foil the Sinister Six from conducting a heist in Stark Tower.

Now, Worlds in Peril is not designed to support Marvel heroes so much as heroes in general, and in any case, each of the players had created their own superheroes largely unrelated to existing Marvel characters. But I was a little uncertain of myself as a first time Dungeon Master (or Editor-in-Chief, as the Worlds in Peril system has it), so I appreciated the support setting the game in an established (albeit unauthorized) fictional universe. And when I say that, I mean more than just borrowing the characters; the action and plot was based directly on an existing comic book storyline (I’d say which, but I wouldn’t want to give the players too many clues on what happens next. Hear that, players? Don’t go looking, please.), adapted to allow for more specific searching of Stark Tower and to give something for the heroes to do. I don’t want to speak for them, but I think the players appreciated the incorporation of comic book stuff themselves, especially the chance to interact with characters they were familiar with. I even had nonplayer friends create voice-recordings of heroes and villains, and based my own renditions of them on the results.

In the first, trial session, where the players fought off the Wrecking Crew, I had my notes on the system and the session written down long-form on bits of looseleaf. The linearity of that version made it rather difficult to adapt to the malleable format of the session, though (players have a nasty habit of not choosing things in the exact order you’ve written), and I transferred everything to flash cards for the Stark Tower scenario. While that method wasn’t perfect–if anyone was collecting a dollar every time I said something starting with “has anyone seen the card….”, fortunes would have been made–I think separate cards for rules, locations, and villains allowed for a much more dynamic play.

My question then: where, if anywhere, is there a core text? If this had been a more regular Dungeons & Dragons sort of session, the D&D manual plus any operating modules would be plausible contenders. But I don’t think the Worlds in Peril manual quite qualifies, as the setting and scenario is so far from what it envisions (and deliberately so; one of the best things about the rhetoric the Apocalypse World and associated works employ is that they consistently emphasize the players’ roles as co-creators, not just followers of their text). The comic I based it on is another candidate, but I don’t think it quite qualifies either, as we deviated so far from the original in the specificity of the tower, in the different characterizations, in the inclusion and actions of three characters who were never involved in the original. A third potential is the script I wrote out, but the original form is at best a potential skeleton, and the flash cards

If this session had been a videogame, then the game world and setting sometimes stands in the core text, in the way that Skyrim takes central stage in, well, Skyrim. But while some tabletop players use miniatures and a board (and I’m not going to lie–busting out a miniature Sinister Six set would have been boss), the closest equivalent I had was my deck of cards. The players’ adventure sheets played a key role in determining the directions and limits of the game, but they’re ultimately just an insubstantiation of the characters the players brought with them and performed. And of course, you can’t forget the role of a good old set of 2D6, that the dice and random chance played a major part as well.

In short, I think a tabletop game is better than almost any game form or media at illustrating how illusory our concept of a core text is, how authorship and medium can be diffused across a network rather than centralized in a single source or sources.

And yet, even then, I can see how much of this account is determined by yet another subjectivity, my own. In other campaigns where I was player instead of manager, I tended more towards identifying the DM as the center around which the game pivots; their brain, and their embodied performance, becomes the core text around which the rest of us perform. And for both of the tabletop podcasts I listen to–Friends at the Table and the Adventure Zone–I consider the core text to be the podcast itself, despite the knowledge that the final product has been edited for my consumption; in other words, we’re back to the medium of most common exposure thing.

I tend to edge away from performance in my analysis of games, focusing instead on structure, purported designer intent, even after-the-fact player responses. But it does good every now and then to account for it, to remember how it pokes holes in concepts like core text, and lets a bit of light shine through.



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