The Dungeon Master is not a storyteller. Within the context of Dungeons & Dragons, this is the role she is usually attributed. Beyond D&D, the term tends to be generalized as the Game Master or Master of Ceremonies; I will refer to the same role, or at least the duties of filling it, as a facilitator. I refer to the D&D term first because it is central to my argument: that the structure of the game matters at least as much as its systems.
Against the storyteller model, I would like to propose an alternative. From this alternative, I will attempt to draw out certain structural properties of Tabletop Roleplaying Games. That alternative is this: The Dungeon Master is the reader. She reads the actions of the players, when brought to bear against the game rules and the proposed setting. She reads, also, the social dynamics, though in this she is not unique.
That the DM is a reader leads to certain critical positions that remain largely unexplored within the theorization of this genre of games. The first is that structure does matter. From this, a discussion of alternative theorizations, primarily Ron Edwards' Big Model, can be undertaken. Following that discussion, the main points can be developed: what constitutes the mode of production of a game, and what constitutes its play.
The essay ends with an exploration of the implications of this theorization on a broader social. Given that the whole relies heavily on the Marxian articulation of the dialectic -- particularly in the form of the Abstract, the Negation, and the Negation of the Negation -- this exploration takes place within the bounds of that articulation.
I. Structural Difference
Any discussion of the merits of D&D must begin by reckoning with the theoretical work done on a forum called The Forge. I feel it worth mentioning that I did not participate in the activity and have approached the body of work there without any real guidance. What follows is not particularly kind to these theories, so I would like to lead by saying that certain theorists from that school, particularly Vincent Baker, have articulated things that I think are very crucial. I will, in particular, refer to Baker's definition of "system," also called the lumpley principle, which is defined as follows: "System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play."
However, I think I find in their theory a very different teleology than the one that they champion, specifically in their praxis (i.e. storygames), which seem to me to move towards the collapse of structural distinctions between the participants in a way that, while perhaps interesting to play and powerful in terms of reframing the dialogue about what tabletop games are and can do, still fundamentally misses the mark as to how that structural difference functions.
Using a dialectical analysis, I hope to clarify what it is about this structural difference that makes it productive of play in the tabletop setting. When I talk about the dialectic, I mean it as follows: a preexisting abstraction is negated, and that negation is subsequently negated, producing a new thing. This new thing is fundamentally marked by the process and will tend to become an abstraction which itself enters into another dialectical process.
In the case of D&D, the initial abstraction is what we tend to call the DM; that is, not the person who is called that, but the structural role, which is comprised of certain types of authority, a degree of managerial accountability, a familiarity with a system, and an initial level of scenario control. This is perhaps not an exhaustive list.
The model which considers the DM as the storyteller agrees up to this point, but neglects the way in which these structural qualities are themselves functions of the dialectical process of play, instead seeing them positivistically; because of these structural qualities, the DM is an authority, a manager, someone with experience and control. The players, then, are the objects of the game, the audience, being managed and dictated to.
But play happens not through inversion but negation, and this seems obvious in the case of any campaign which proceeds past character creation; the DM immediately has to consider backstories, allegiances, availabilities, interests, and so on, and this becomes the true shape of the game. The players, then, are the initial negation, that which concretely opposes and undoes the abstraction.
The easiest way to see this is in the frequency of the frustration of the DM's position as storyteller: she prepares a scene, the players subvert it (un)intentionally, drawing out an insignificant conversation or proceeding down an unforeseen path, and so the majority of the DM’s prep goes by the wayside. The DM can respond to this in one of two ways: she can insist on the abstraction, railroading the players, or she can work within the negation, improvising or reworking prep elements to fit within her now negated material.
In practice, the DM usually finds some sort of balance between these two reactions. The storygamer praxis seems to consist of an attempt to set up the former possible response as a structural failing and the latter as the true locus of play. Therefore, they extrapolate, and end up in a place where the DM’s structural difference is negated; without a human occupying the structural role of DM, the former reaction cannot take place, and the latter is guaranteed.
Again, this is interesting on its own terms; however, it also precludes the subsequent processes which, in my estimation, are the true strength of something like D&D, or at least are what keep someone like me, who has no particular interest in things like roleplaying or worldbuilding as such, engaged.
The final step, then, is the negation of the negation, or the sublation; the final move, by which the players themselves are negated, and the new thing is instantiated. There are a number of things that could be thought to play this role, and I think it worth a brief detour to list them below:
- The improvisation of the DM. As referenced earlier, this is fundamentally a reaction to the initial negation; as such, it contains the seeds of the negation of the negation. It, however, does not negate the players in itself, nor does it “move through” them. It remains within the hierarchical structure which the “storyteller” model privileges.
- The various way in which the players assume responsibilities formally accorded to the DM. This appears in multiple ways; players attempting to exploit the rules, players taking over scene building responsibilities, players organizing the sessions, players actively or passively refusing to engage on either a micro or macrocosmic level; all of these and more seem, at least at first glance, to indicate a moving past the first negation. Again, however, this takes the structure as fixed; it democratizes the play to a certain extent (whether productively or poisonously), but ultimately serves to reify the abstraction. This, in fact, is the only way that the DM goes from abstract negatable quantity to tyrant, and it is also, unfortunately, one of the most intuitive and apparently-interesting ways to play the game.
- The “contents” of any game/campaign. This is the most obvious answer, and gets closer to the real movement without quite identifying it. This is sometimes called the Shared Imagined Space in storygamer lingo; it is the sort of thing that recaps are made of. What is important is that it is created by all participants in the game, rather than being imposed by DM fiat. While this constitutes a move through negation into the creation of the positive, it only accounts for one aspect of the sublation; it fails to account for the negation of the negation.
II. The Big Model
For those unfamiliar, the Big Model is a diagram which came out of the Forge/storygame crowd’s theorization of RPGs.
In the diagram, the largest circle is labeled the “Social Contract,” and consists of all the stuff outside a game that creates the conditions for play (travel, social dynamics, availability, etc.). In this section I am going to articulate why what I have detailed above is more than a simple recapitulation of this model.
According to Ron Edwards, the creator of The Forge, the Social Contract is the “big box” that encompasses the play of RPGs. In the model, it is where the arrow labeled “Creative Agenda” begins. The short version of my claim is this: framing the social as a container fundamentally misprises play and results in a necessarily hierarchical, fixed structure, even in cases where the mechanics work explicitly against this. Also I am going to drop the “Contract” from here on because it seems bad.
The key idea in this theory, which posits itself against the Big Model theory, is that DMing is itself the beginning of a dialectical process, the result of which is the negation of roleplaying. Another term for this negation could be the social.
While it would be a peculiar sort of ignorance to argue that social conditions don’t represent the material conditions on which RPG gaming is based, it is equally ignorant to argue that they subsequently function in the sort of cod-Freudian way that The Forge theorists tend to, pointing to issues in play as inevitably symptoms of a dysfunctional group sociality, generally under the rubric of a divergent Creative Agenda.
The Creative Agenda, in the Big Model, is a way of formalizing the knowledge that individuals approach play with different interests. It does so in order to claim that any given group functions similarly. Broadly, the claim inherent to the diagram's guiding arrow is that any given gaming group will tend towards one of three broad camps. Implicitly, it is primarily used to indicate that any sort of social dysfunction in any given group that is not obviously preceding the game arises from conflicting desires within the group.
There is something like a class-based antagonism going on here, of course; The Forge was primarily a space for game designers, whether professional or amateur or aspiring, to work through their theories, and so they have a vested interest in preserving a reliance on the means of production.
The Creative Agenda is nothing much more than a system-specific recapitulation of a tripartite psychoanalytic model, a way of providing a scientistic basis for the reconstruction of motivations or inclinations based on an understanding of a socially-determined individual. If the Big Model lacks an explicit oedipal myth, this is only because Oedipus permeates it so wholly as to be invisible. Everyone has their initial subjectivating trauma; whether that manifests as a recurring dream about wolves or a particular GNS predilection, the talking (playing) cure will reveal all.
Positing that the social is the material conditions of roleplaying games is to say that, yes, they take place in the frame of the social, but that previous theorizations neglect to account for how that social is the material which is acted upon by the transformative labor of play. Reducing the social (by way of the Creative Agenda) to the Lacanian Real or Freudian unconscious works well enough if that’s your goal, but recognizing the way in which this kind of play organizes sociality into a productive labor is central to navigating the particular way in which gaming structures at the same time as it is structured.
III. Modes of Production
Storygaming is an attempt to alter the relations of production without addressing the means of production. As such, its attempts to reorganize games structurally succeeds in the sense of changing how any particular game treats the material of the social; however, this success is based on the false premise that the models it builds are a rejection of the hierarchical model that precedes, and with a deep misunderstanding of the way in which this particular kind of play is a pleasurable extension of, and mimetic reflection on, labor, and its own structuring of the social.
Dialogue surrounding roleplaying games is deeply concerned with a sense of creation. If there is a single value that could be universally attributed to this type of play, it would take a strong argument to claim anything else. The object of creation, of course, generally remains unarticulated. So, what is it?
The obvious answer here is "a fiction." This is where the "DM as storyteller" model comes from; RPG play is a structured social interaction with the aim of producing a (shared) fiction. This idea is also why so many awful fantasy books get likened to D&D campaigns; the author is a (real or presumed) Dungeon Master translating (poorly) her campaign to the written word.
The Big Model theorists have a slightly better term for the product of the campaign: the Shared Imagined System, or SIS. This gets closer to the way that the act of play produces not a fiction in and of itself, but a space in which fictions occur. Rather than a rote fantasy novel, then, sitting together to play a game is (at least on one level) the act of collaboratively producing a universe in which those fantasy novels might be set. While this gets significantly closer to describing what it is like to actually play a tabletop roleplaying game, it keeps the drawbacks of assuming that one necessary byproduct of this type of play is actually fundamental to it.
One way to say this is that, for all that SIS opens up, it remains excessively design-focused, conflating play itself with the goals of the creation of a system. The practical consequence of this theory then works against its stated aims: working with the understanding of the SIS leads to an attempt to democratize role of facilitator. But that democratization fails to abolish it, instead generalizing it. When no one has the structural role of the DM the end result is simply a distributed facilitation, not a generalization of play.
The reality is that RPG play has, as its product, social relations. Again, it isn't that the social dynamic is the thing which conditions play and can be accessed through it, as though play were a simple analogue of the unconscious; play itself is productive of social relations, and they modify themselves in accordance with the means by which they were produced (system in Baker's sense) to better reflect those means, and (in doing so) are rapidly outmoded by the development of those means, often to the point of obsolescence or outright antagonism.
The mode of production of RPG play, then, is taken here to be the coordination of the system (the experiential set of mediative technologies which the players have reached consensus on at any given moment) with the social relations (the ways in which players form ad hoc modes of normative social behaviors conditioned by the experience of play). Because both of these aspects are subject to constant performative restatement, there is no concrete way of elaborating them into a totalized system.
Despite the failure of any game to elaborate a totalizing mode of production, the function is the same, even if it remains intensely local. The confluence of system and social relations through play produce hegemonic structures, social relations in which certain subjectivities are privileged and others are not. Because the products themselves are immaterial, and because the means of production themselves are performative and beholden to an exterior (but interpellated) set of social relations, the question of how to engage meaningfully with the means of production without simply recapitulating or generalizing them needs to be asked. My own tentative answer, very much pending reconsideration, is in moving toward (as I lay out in Part I) an understanding of the dialectical structure of this mode of play, and combining that with an understanding of the way play mimics labor.
IV. Bodies at Play
Understanding the dialectical movement fostered by the structure of Dungeons & Dragons is useless without taking account for the way it is enacted by bodies at play.
In theory, D&D takes on a capitalist structure: as the facilitator, the DM's primary responsibility is in controlling the application of the system. In practice, however, she is the primary object of negation; her control of the means of production is exclusively established such that it can be negated in actual play. This negation, as discussed above, is again negated, by the players accidental or purposeful abstention from roleplaying; this itself is the actual play.
If this is all more or less dictated by the structural organization of the game, then fine; but it is not a fully automated process. One can't simply observe any of this by reading a rulebook; the form demands a specific kind of engagement to produce this objective conclusion.
In every instance of the structural movement detailed that produces play, as well as in the specific formulation of the RPG mode of production, what is central is the way that the engagement of the group of people with the current aspect of the process (players and DM alike) develops the system along the dialectical path. This engagement is also known as "people actually playing the game."
The way in which play is analogous to labor, in the case of D&D, is very straightforward; the people playing use the means of production, rented out to them at a price, as a way of creating a product, for which they are compensated. That the product is identical with the compensation is simply a way of saying that this particular form of labor is not alienated; the utopian implications here are both obvious and probably useless in an actual critique of capital.
That this labor isn't alienated does not mean it is morally good; the production of social relations that games like D&D encode are often destructive and violent. This has reasons that are structural both on the game's terms and in terms of the society in which the game exists; there are also innumerable individual, non-structural reasons. None of this is of particular concern to this analysis.
What is important is to identify, broadly speaking, the actions that take place around the table, or in prep activities, which themselves are acts of labor, in order to better understand experiential play given this analysis. This begins before the rules, even, in genre itself.
This first type of work is a sort of topological knowledge; this is essentially the difference between a skilled and an unskilled laborer/player. What is important is not a knowledge of genre goals or conventions as such, but a familiarity with what is actually essential about genre: that it exists as a way to reproduce its own conditions. This knowledge is rarely articulated, of course, and especially rarely in ways that aren't the repetition of established tropes, but the topological knowledge of the genre – for D&D, this is doubly "fantasy" and "roleplaying game" – is the driving force behind the player's ability to work efficiently with its systems toward productive ends.
Knowledge of particular tropes from a specific genre can actually impede play; in the case of D&D, this most clearly takes the form of a particular character opting for the role of the fantasy hero and attempting to mold the game accordingly. But the same situation isn't always destructive; if the player recognizes that this trope isn't necessarily an end in itself, but simply a way of actualizing the Fantasy genre and perpetuating it, and plays it accordingly, the Hero archetype can be a productive member of the group.
The second type is another form of knowledge, which is particularized in the DM, as familiarity with the system. Part III of this essay deals with the ways in which this apparently structurally resembles not labor, but capital, and why that structural resemblance is not the case in practice.
The third type is establishing the initial abstraction. This overlaps the second type, but is typified in the game's "prep" work. In reality, this is a type of prestidigitation; the DM (generally speaking) performs work outside of the physical context of the game ostensibly in order to, as wisdom has it, facilitate her ability to tell a story. Really what the DM does is to establish the pretense of having labored (which often leads to actually performing the expected labor). This is a way of establishing the abstract authority held by the DM in a concrete way; the player's "know" that the DM has "put in work" ahead of time, and so, striving to honor that, will then put work in themselves. The players, as the negation, will necessarily void this work; the DM then pretends that this negation never happened.
The fourth type is establishing the negation. This is also called character creation. Generally this is the first moment that play takes place. However, it doesn't simply cease after the character sheet has been filled out; any time during play that the player makes a decision as or for their character (whether it is altering the character's motivations based on newly discovered facts within the fiction, or standing up after having been knocked prone during battle), this particular form of labor is being done. So while the archetype of this might be character creation, it could equally be called roleplay itself.
The fifth type of labor is the negation of the negation. This is the product of the game, its social relations, as exemplified by metagaming.
Establishing that these five actions are types of labor, and how they are exemplified, is crucial to understanding the dynamics of the actual dialectical movement of the game. If we persist under the idea that the work of playing a roleplaying game is parasitical upon the play, we fundamentally mischaracterize the game itself.
V. Workers at Play
Labor under capitalism is an abstraction; the quantity which translates time into money. The worker sells her labor time to the capitalist, and the capitalist invests according to perceived productive capacity. The capitalist mode of production structures social relations according to relations of production; to live socially is to bring your productive capacity to bear on time.
But play is not profit, no matter what good intentions child psychologists have when they metaphorize. It is, of course, one of the premiere components of reproductive labor, which itself is at least as crucial to the functioning of capital in both the short and long term as its more identifiable counterpart; and is, itself, irresistibly drawn back into the flow of capital, in the form of either new or (in the case of play) rejuvenated bodies. To argue for play alone, then, is to argue for reproduction of capitalist systems, whether that argument takes the form of play-as-escape or play-as-enriching-experience.
The worker at play is a clause that doubles itself; it can be read either as the Worker, who is at play; or as the one who works at playing. In the former case, the category of worker is figured as a stable identity. This could be diachronically speaking, but is more probably synchronic, using a discrete temporal frame to nominalize an action into an identity, and referring then to an action taken while inhabiting this identity. In the latter, the play is the subject, the fixed thing, and the 'worker at' is a description of the kind of action being taken upon it.
For capitalism to function as a mode of production, the former interpretation is a, if not the, crucial component of short-term, day to day reproductive labor. The worker works, primarily, but not exhaustively; because the worker, no matter that labor is an abstraction, refers always to a body, and the body's productive capacity (at least in terms of generating products as well as surplus value) is limited. The worker must also sleep, and shit; and increasingly, as the mode progresses, play.
It is the latter interpretation which fits the dialectical mode of play exemplified by games like Dungeons & Dragons, however, and this interpretation, while not necessarily disruptive of capital nor unsubsumable by it, nevertheless does not reproduce it, at least not in the same way. It reproduces the mode of production's social relations only, and imperfectly.
While "to work at playing" could very easily be appropriated as a propagandistic term for, say, the environmental blurring of a workplace like Google or a videogame studio, it is always only ever a figure of speech, or an elision. To invest the form of labor into the act of play is to reproduce labor, of course, both in the act of bodily rehabilitation and as an abstraction; but it also refuses commoditization, and the logic of surplus value.
As ideological reproduction, there is a crucial gap in the form and the action. Baker's notion of Reward System is useful in illustrating how it is the work of the designer, above all else, to obscure or bridge this gap, providing (as he says) the basis of an answer to the question of how play functions as its own reward by recourse to the highest possible repeated system that (to return to my own language) justifies the reproduction of the abstraction of labor in the context of a leisure activity.
All of which returns us to the necessary basic assumption: that the DM is not the storyteller, but the reader. Whether from the perspective of the reproduction of labor or from the development of a campaign, this assumption, along with an analysis of the mode of production, leads to a way of approaching and enacting D&D that is broadly overlooked.
When the play-structure of D&D is altered, while preserving the structure of production (facilitators working from purchasable rulebooks), any theorization that does not account for this assumption begins to exhibit deformations between the theory and the praxis. This is why a game like The Quiet Year -- for all its positives (there are a lot of positives and you should absolutely play it) -- has a sense of stasis to it beyond the movement of the mechanics. The stunted dialectic persists as an absence.
If this analysis is "for" anyone then, and this separates me wildly from the Forge theorists/designers discussed, then it is for the player, rather than the designer. Instead of attempting to offer a better model by which to design and sell these games, in other words, I would like for this to, if it is to be applied to any aspect of the process of these games, be available to those who play them intentionally. Against the critic as pet and quality assurance; but simultaneously against the player as needing to be pandered to.
Above all, an assertion that if Edwards' contention that System Does Matter holds any weight, which I believe it does, then the corollary contention, that Structure Does Matter, must no longer be ignored.