Monday, 6 October 2014


I wrote an article with the lovely Pete Wolfendale that appeared in the pop philosophy volume Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy a couple of years back, and I've returned to thinking about it after seeing a few unrelated comments on Google Plus from RPG authors and commentators, speculating about DnD as an art form and its relation to other art forms. The article, "Why Dungeons and Dragons is Art", interprets DnD through a Kantian model of aesthetics (the title we actually wanted was "The Aesthetics of Roleplaying Games", but I don't argue with sub-editors). I don't think the theory that Pete came up with and I helped him to explicate is a full explanation of the aesthetics of roleplaying, I'm not enough of a philosopher to assert that it's the correct theory of art, and I don't think it's even necessary to hold a theory of art to believe that something has full status as artwork; but by entertaining it we can raise some new questions about the relationships between different parts of RPGs, and how they might (or might not contribute) to the experience on an aesthetic level.

I can't embed the original post as it's part of the OSR DnD community on Google plus, so here's the important part -

 "In essence the Kantian aesthetics (Pete, correct me if I'm wrong here) is that the aesthetic experience is a moment in which our mind encounters something made of intelligible parts but not fully intelligible (ie, an artwork), and enters a state of speculation during which it cannot alight on a judgment of the things it is speculating on. In this state it can perceive its own function (as a machine for constructing worlds out of of sensoria), and this self-perception is what we experience as the awe of art.

RPGs are a collective experience of world-constructing through consensus (between players and rules) and randomisation. The goal-oriented play of an RPG enables immersion in the constructed world, and enables the aesthetic experience of speculation without a judgeable object. The excitement of simultaneously being in your living room eating pizza and being in another world comes about, in part, through the aesthetic experience of your own ability to construct a functional world out of scant experience, that is both independent of you and also known to be an incomplete model; just as we experience reality itself."

I put some other terminology into the post as well which connected to a debate/disagreement that, from the comments that followed, I evidently didn't realise the full extent of. I'll get onto that later. 

An RPG is a nest of many different things. It has players and play experiences and sessions; it has rules documents and rulebooks and rule-following and referees (and rules arguments); it also has documents that guide play that aren't rules, such as setting documents, or adventure modules; it has unwritten rules, social rules, house rules; it has stories and art; it's also possible to turn play experiences into stories and art. So what part of that complex is the artwork? We found it easier to ask, "When do you experience the art?" and then reify that into an object; and we decided that the experience of play is the moment you feel the distinct aesthetic power of RPGs, which makes the play-experience the object that has aesthetic characteristics. It was the one part that we definitively knew was not present in any of the constitutive elements of an RPG. (We could Germanize it for added Philosophy - Spielerfahrung. Actually that's awesome. I'm going to use that.)

The essay attempts to find a theory for the artfulness of RPGs that does not collapse into another theory for another artform, and that is more than a sum-of-its-parts argument. It was an attempt to find what it is about the Spielerfahrung that can generate awe, distinct from the capacity of other artforms to create awe. A reductive explanation would be that all artworks enable our mind to look at some part of its own capacity to construct a world; when we play RPGs, we have root access, because we are literally engaged in an act of collective world construction. Yet RPGs are more powerful than even that suggests. The trick for a Kantian aesthetic experience is that normally, your mind is judging something or other. It is judging a table to be flat, or the wallpaper to be green. If you try to judge your capacity to build a world by looking at part of it, you instead judge that object - like fighting Medusa, you cannot look directly at your ability to create a world. It's only when you experience something seemingly but not finally explicable that exceeds your capacity to interpret and which you cannot definitively judge, that your judgment can circumvent the object you are speculating on and instead alights on your speculation itself. When you participate in the Spielerfahrung you are engaged in the act of constructing a world; yet you do not judge the Spielerfahrung because you are invested in the world you are creating. Or another way of putting it - being immersed in an RPG world stops your mind forming a judgment about the way that you create that immersion. Your mind is constructing worlds without end, it is not focused on a judgable object, and in this state it can judge its own world-building power (and find it good).

Now, to re-insert that point that I alluded to three paragraphs back. The terminology I used was "Narrativist vs. Simulationist." What I thought the terms meant was "games/rules that attempt to enable play that recreates narrative conventions", and "games/rules that attempt to enable play that mimics physical reality." Zak Smith in his insistent style pointed out that the terms have a rather broader and ill-defined use, not universally agreed upon or adopted. While narrativist vs simulationist is a false dichotomy between types of RPG, it is true that some games rules complement play that aims to reflect "what would really happen in X circumstance", while others "what would happen in an action movie/dramatic narrative/western". These aren't opposed tendencies, and they aren't the only scales on which the rules of RPGs affect play. But importing the theory from the DnD and Philosophy essay, I think they represent two very important ways in which RPGs create the aesthetic experience.

A world in the sense I have been using is a construct for making sense of experience, inferred from an outside reality but not equivalent to it. Our minds build worlds - but the physical world is not the only one. The physical world is a primary way in which we experience reality; it's a world of causality, physics, human-independent facts. The narrative world is a world of politics, idealism, fatalism, narrative conventions, and human-dependent sequences of events. The symbolic world is part of language, tarot reading, saga and myth. The dream world exists in the associative logic of schizophrenics and sleep deprivation, faces in car bumpers, overactive pattern-forming and unfounded conviction. I'm sure there are sub worlds (tragedy vs. comedy vs. police procedural within the narative world) and that there are worlds of experience missing from the short list. A world as construed here is just a framework for understanding what we perceive, and there should be as many as there are humans. When we participate in Spielerfahrung, we are able to experience our capacity to build many different types of world, and different RPGs will engage us in the creation of each type of world to a greater or lesser extent.

So, questions arising from this:

What RPGs are there that enable you to construct the weird outlier worlds? Any game can be jury-rigged to support any kind of world-making by inserting setting material, referee styles, house rules and so on, but are there any rules systems that particularly encourage dream logic?

Which conventions of play enable you to experience immersion? What makes you forget that you are engaged in building a world from a quintessence of dust?

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