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.
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.
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.