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RPG and Art

I think that it is undeniable that role-playing games constitute art in every sense of the word. The act of communally creating a story regardless of mechanical means underpinning it is clearly a work of
art. This thought is often abbreviated, however, whether out of embarrassment or an excess of ego.

First, let's not be shy about calling it art. It is an art form and there are better and worse results as art. As with any art, the capacity of the resulting activity to amuse is not necessarily related to its quality. The capacity to entertain (cf. Eisenstein) perhaps more closely is. The capacity to expose ideas that otherwise may not be illuminated certainly is. To head off the obvious accusations of "badwrongfun" -- yes, some fun is artless. You are not an evil or stupid person for enjoying that. But the fact that your dungeon crawl is great fun does not make it art and, more importantly, the fact that the medium can be used to cerate art does not make your dungeon crawl suck. My crappy doodling in the margins of crossword puzzles in not art either, but it is diverting. I will not defend it as art and I will not be offended if you make the claim that it is not art.

Second, let's not mistake the medium for the message. Once someone (usually a game designer) gets it in their head that this passtime is sometimes art, they usually glom on to the idea that the game itself is art or (more insidious) that the game affects the whether or not art is created. Or affects its quality. I want to stand well apart from that idea. Not because I think system doesn't matter (where system is defined largely as the rules as applied by the table -- vaguer and proportionally less useful definitions exist) but rather because talking about the system is rather like discussing the qualities of cinema by focusing on lenses, film, and cameras.

The, art, you see, is in the play.

Now, when a film-maker sets out to make a great film there is no question that he selects his tools very specifically. But he selects them in the context of his goals. Not all tools are always useful and some turn out to be rarely useful indeed. But the art is in the finished product -- the film itself -- and not in the lens or the colour process.

And so I think that the art in role-playing games if firmly vested in the table itself -- in play. And it is there. We have all experienced a thrill, a sense of awe, a rush of excitement, from a moment in play or, more rarely, from an entire session. When looking back over play notes from a multi-session campaign there is often a powerful emotional response to the story (though -- and this is another essay -- not from the reproduction of events but from the memory of the actual session that it evokes). This response is the giveaway that that we are dealing with art. And it happens sometimes in most games and all the time in none. More in some perhaps. Less in others. But always it is from play as influenced by system and not from system as represented in play. The storytelling is the artform. The people telling the stories are the artists.

Somewhere this feeds into increased narrative authority as a tool to get more out of sessions by inviting more of the table to be artists more of the time.

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Brad J. Murray
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