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The Artist is Present

I am about to ask you to do something I have to admit I didn’t do as much of during my academic career as I should have: do the reading before getting to class. Or in this case, I want you to watch a video on YouTube. Which is something I did more of during my academic career than I should have. Anyway, I need you to take about half an hour and go watch Ian Danskin’s excellent video The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide to understand where I’m going in today’s post. I want to put forward an argument that there are some games where the author is present.

I think the absence of the author is partially true of tabletop roleplaying games in some important ways. It is most certainly true of the rule books, supplements, and literary fiction that uses the same setting as the game that your GM/DM/storyteller wants to run. It is not true of the story the players are at the table to play through, though, because the DM acts as an author-figure during the play of the game. They can adjust the narrative in real time to make things clearer to the players, answer questions at the table, and confer in between sessions. The difference between this and the campfire storyteller is that the players are active participants in the procedure of creating the narrative rather than an audience that is expected to sit and listen quietly. This is what makes the tabletop RPG special. I did not say unique because I recently heard of a collaborative storytelling game called Storium which eschews solving problems with polyhedral chunks of plastic and other elements of what we normally consider games and really zooms in on the process of creating a narrative. I haven’t played this yet, but am very interested in doing so.

“The introduction of so powerful an agent as polyhedral dice to a collaborative narrative with players will make a great change in the situation of storytelling.” – Thomas Jefferson in Made-up Quotes Falsely Attributed To Founding Fathers, p. 133 

If, in the person of the DM, the artist is present, what does that change? Well, it ends the debate over authorial intent. Danskin argues that interpretation trumps intent when the author cannot be present. When creating a work, the author must think in advance about how the work will be interpreted. For example, if Beginner’s Guide included a sequence where the player was beset by enemies who look like they came straight out of a minstrel show, it most likely would not matter to us what Narrator Davey says or even what Davey Prime says about how the work is supposed to be a critical commentary on racism. If the game has us saying out loud and/or in our heads “holy shit, this game is super-racist and that’s awful” then at best the author had great intentions but failed as an artist if it really is that hard to see through to his critique. That’s the main beef I have with Bayonetta: it’s not that I can’t understand the argument that it’s not objectifying women, but it comes off that way so much that it’s not possible for me to come away without feeling that it does even if that wasn’t the original intention. Likewise, I wouldn’t blame people around my game table if I submitted official character portraits that depicted characters (particularly female ones) in a way that needlessly sexualizes them.

Why won’t anyone believe me when I say that I intended my druid to be a strong female character?

This is where the tabletop RPG is different from other kinds of games: if I have a femme fatale NPC that I hear from my players sounds more like creepy fan service than legitimate character, I have some options that I would not as a published author. If the character is straight out of a published module, then maybe that author ought to rethink the portrayal of women, but I as the DM can take the basics and rework them as I see fit. Or I can choose a different module, or homebrew something less offensive. Or, I can run with the character and do a session on peeling back the layers to show that she’s actually a person underneath the mask if that’s something that would interest the players. Or, I can just have her exit stage right and never appear again. There will be many options available to me, which will render the question of intent moot: if I proceed to play out something the players don’t like, and the players know it, then I alone am responsible for it and can’t hide behind some other author’s intent.

So, what does that mean for aspiring authors and dungeon masters alike? Be aware of your presence or lack thereof. In partially or non-interactive media (from video games to paperback novels) remember that authors are responsible for making sure the content they put out there can be interpreted in mostly reasonable ways by the target audience. There will always be people who insist on being exceptionally unreasonable, but the people who are never happy with anything are few though loud. In general, reasonable people will make reasonable interpretations but should not be expected to perform impressive feats of mental gymnastics to discover the artist’s cryptic intent. We create things to be interpreted by audiences and there is nothing we can do if they just don’t get it except create something else that does a better job of expressing our original intent. In fully interactive media where the author is present, remember that you are responsible for the content you use to shape the world. In the wrong hands, tabletop games can be used to create some pretty horrific situations for the people trying to play. Done the right way, the rules and the narrative can change during the course of play to facilitate additional play. That is why I find the tabletop RPG to be interesting enough to play, run, and write about. It’s the only kind of game I know where the author is present.

Published inFictionTabletop RPGVideo Games


  1. Rolaran Rolaran

    Very interesting, and yes, this is one of the things that makes tabletop games uniquely remarkable. And while it is in some ways easier on the artist when you have the ability to adjust for audience perception in real time, the accompanying difficulty is that it becomes vital to do so. I have been in campaigns where DMs either failed or refused to tailor their story based on player responses or actions, and it kills any enthusiasm the players might have otherwise had for the story. Conversely, I’ve been in campaigns where the DM was clearly making these adjustments, and it causes players to “buy in” in a way I rarely see otherwise. Simple yet effective.

    As a side note, if you’re interested in “The Beginner’s Guide”, it’s currently available in a Humble Indie Bundle, ( meaning you can get it for a dollar. Although Ian Danskin’s video necessarily spoiled some of the big twists, the game itself is still very much worthwhile both as an experience, and a sobering meditation on the creative process, the relationship between creator and audience, and differentiating a creator from their work.

  2. Ertwin Ertwin

    The fun part about tabletop rpg isn’t that the author is present in the dm, it’s that the author is present in everyone at the table. The DM may be the guiding hand, but everyone contributes to the narrative.

    • I actually came down here to say something similar to this.

      I fall in line pretty well with the Absent Artist camp. Some people will consistently interpret things based on their own biases. Some people will look at a work and attempt to figure out the author’s intent. Some people will look at a work and go “ooh pretty!”. I think that part of the great thing about unleashing creative works into the world is that a well-done piece will make someone feel something or think about something. Just like I can’t control how other people react to certain situations or make their beliefs fall in like with mine regarding things like my clothing/style/politics/religious beliefs/etc., I cannot control how they react to any art/writing/video games/etc. I create and unleash.

      One of my favourite things about tabletop RPGs is the collaborative aspect of the creative process. Sometimes things can go in a completely different direction that what a GM initially intended based on what the characters do or what to do. If the GM forces the players to simply follow along in the story, then I think that the GM has chosen the incorrect medium for their art. They are looking for static or interactive fiction or video games. I think that in most creative processes. choosing the medium is just as important as choosing a theme or storyline. Imagine if Jackson Pollock tried to write his paintings. Or if Lewis Carroll had tried to paint Alice in Wonderland. Or if Shakespeare tried to perform his plays as drum solos. Or whatever.

      I agree with Ertwin. The GM is the facilitator and the largest influence on the story, having the most pieces in their control (location, NPCs, weather, time period, other world building stuff). But the players are just as important to the overall story, because they ostensibly control the protagonists. Without good protagonists, a GM might as well just paint the setting.

    • Rolaran Rolaran

      I actually think I disagree with you both. Certainly the players are contributors. And certainly the players can *become* co-authors. But I feel like influencing the story, while necessary to be an author, is not sufficient. Otherwise we would need to credit the dice as co-authors, given how a high or low roll can drastically change the story!

      Firstly, the DM defines a possibility space in a way that the players typically cannot. The DM can decide, for example, whether the player characters can find a heavy branch to use as a weapon, or whether they can access the Internet in a modern setting, or whether a given NPC is open to negotiation or vulnerable to threats. Players may dispute these calls, but the calls remain in the DM’s hands. The DM determines canonicity. Now, it is true that only a very heavy-handed DM will not accept input from the players and be open to changing these calls, and DMs who learn the old improv trick of using “yes, and…” will necessarily cede some control. But that control can be taken back again if need be.

      Secondly, the DM has authorial intent in a way that is typically not (at first) extended to the players. The DM knows what *kind* of story they want to tell. The DM has an audience in mind (the players). Whether that story is a boilerplate hero’s journey, a nihilistic tragedy, a lighthearted farce, a Kafkaesque grind, or any number of genres, is up to the DM’s decisions (and storytelling skill). Now, the players should be able to figure out what kind of story they are “in” as it progresses, and this is where the presence of both author and audience becomes interesting, since they can “go with” the story as presented or attempt to subvert it (whether by “in character” action or “out of character” objections). I think this is what I mean when I say the players can become co-authors.

      I don’t mean to knock players here. The presence of both author and audience creates opportunities found nowhere else. And it is undeniably true that the contributions of players make the stories richer than they would be if the DM simply spoke into a vacuum. But authorship is a more nuanced concept than “IF you change the story THEN an author is you!”

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