RPGs are Made of Text
The intent of this piece is to break down what begins as a deliberately confusing thesis:
the text of tabletop RPGs
has been viewed as more of a manual
than a text.”
And it’s deliberately confusing because I want to speak in depth about how TTRPG space doesn’t really have the language to talk about all the nuances in that sentence, and how that impacts our play experience.
I want to begin with “viewing these documents as a manual”. Manuals are instructions, recipes, or if-then statements that drive toward a certain outcome. Usually some sort of desired replication. Slowly drizzle in ¼ cup of oil as I once did, and you will result with a similar aioli. Or, if you follow these rules for designing an encounter to a challenge rating, you will generate a similar interest curve within the constraints for which the game is designed. Or, if you Go Aggro, these are your viable outcomes. Violation of these rules doesn’t stop them being manuals, it simply changes the results. I double most recipes’ call for garlic, because I’m looking for a different (better) outcome. That doesn’t stop them being recipes. In the same way, we can break the rules of Ross Cowman’s Fall of Magic, skipping all the sad wistful stops in the middle section because we want a game that is faster, lighter, and more immediate. That doesn’t stop the game’s instructions from being written as instructions. Rules may be made to be broken, but that doesn’t stop them from being rules.
“Rules are for fools”
When I say “the text of Tabletop RPGs” I’m talking about the words, and layout, and images, and editing, and things contained within the covers. When I say “the text of Good Society” I’m really referencing all the physical matter of the book, even when it’s not physical (like, as I mostly consume RPGs, a PDF). It means the things that exist. It is about being a readable, accessible, actionable document. To make it a bit clearer, and to separate it from the latter use of “text”, when I talk about this meaning for the rest of this piece, I’m going to call it the “document”.
When I say “A text”, I mean the entire aesthetic of Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG. The package of material that comes with its own context, in what is said, how it’s constructed, and also…what isn’t said. This is the same as how Spiderman: Homecoming brings a lot of additional information by existing as both a part of the Spiderman mythos and the Avengers cinematic canon. Just as much, text is influenced how we as individuals receive it. The text of Good Society is, to me, inherently inseparable from how I engage with it, with all the baggage and experience and BBC Miniseries adoration that I bring. And while this is true of other media (how I engage with a movie or book is inherently different from how someone else may) it is especially true of games because of that layer of interactivity. And this is what I mean when I continue to refer to “the text”.
And so, what I’m really saying with the statement that heads this section is: Historically, Tabletop RPGs have been viewed as an apolitical, functional document designed to guide play, rather than a piece of literary art in and of themselves. Historically, how we discuss games has been about printed facts, rather than interpreting contexts. The document of a Tabletop RPG is designed to facilitate play, for players who are engaging in good faith with the rules and structures of the document itself, to generate a play experience similar to the designers playtests. A recipe, designed to help obedient cooks to replicate the dishes of chefs. However, the text of RPGs is something so much more, and as a culture we have refused to engage with that.
Playing It Straight
Dogs in the Vineyard is a document written by Vincent Baker for playing the Tabletop RPG by the same name. In play, the players act as God’s Watchdogs, and defend the faith and the faithful from sin. These “Dogs” are inquisitors of a strict and protective faith, in a fictional version of wild west colonies, where these character’s word is religious doctrine, and therefore law. And that is totally true of the document of Dogs in the Vineyard, but it’s far from true about the text. A month or so ago Luke Jordan of Games from the Wildwood and I had a wonderful chat regarding Dogs in the Vineyard where Luke said that we learn so much about people from what they think Dogs in the Vineyard is really about. It later led to this tweet, which is a pithy version of my understanding of Dogs as a text: That we as players should reject the Dogs as villains, and find them distasteful. If our characters are to be heroes to us as players, they must inevitably turn against the Faith. But that tweet, that reading of Dogs, is a result of my exposure to text, and not to the mechanisms of the game-as-written.
To discuss the text of Dogs in the Vineyard I’m going to dip in and out of discussions by Vincent Baker as the author of the document. Now, traditionally, I’m the kind of person who retweets Uno rulings calling for Barthesian Deaths of the Author (that is the removal of the author’s power of interpretation). In the terms we’ve been using, I’m a big believer that the author writes the document, but the audience makes the text. However, there’s some nuance as there always must be, and I also think it’s important to highlight Baker’s comments to inform this analysis because it truly is so interesting how far the play experience can drift from perceived intent.
In an undated interview with Rabbit Hammer, Baker said of Dogs in the Vineyard:
“I grew up Mormon. My main inspiration was the body of family stories and history that came down to me, and my own research into the religion’s history. My goal was to create a game that took my Mormon ancestors and their lives and faith seriously, while also taking seriously my own experience leaving the faith.”
We can read Baker taking his “Mormon ancestors and their lives and faith seriously” in how the document of Dogs in the Vineyard plays the Faith, Demons, Sins, and responsibility of the Dogs entirely straight, with respect to the beliefs that underpin it. The Faith, it says, is the only true religion in the world. The decisions that you make in character creation are given divine right.
“It was as it should be, for reasons known to the King of Life.”
Most importantly, the fate of the town as created by the game master is diegetically true (that is: True within the fiction of the game). All conflicts begin with Pride, and if unanswered, they end with Death. Due entirely to Demons, invited in by the results of Sin. For example, when a member of the Faithful is assigned a negligible civic duty, and believes that warrants his family’s maintenance by the rest of the town, that is Pride. Because he unjustly takes wealth from others in the town, the townsfolk become poor. Because they are poor, they begin to make and sell whiskey. Because they are making whiskey, the church’s meeting hall burns down. Because a man was injured in the fire, he blames the Steward, believing him to be a false prophet. Because he believes the King of Life to not support the Steward, he prays nightly for his death. Sooner or later he gets some people to agree with him, and the Demons whisper to them that leaving the Steward alive is dangerous, and thus murder. This progression is consequential, and inevitable.
I say inevitable because the diegesis of Sin progression is that it will never stop without being stopped. If the Dogs never come to the town, or if they fail in their duty to uphold the King’s Laws, murder (and subsequent dissolution of the Faith) is the only option as expressed by the rules. The document leaves no space for someone in the town to talk the angry burned man down, or for his rage to sit in his belly until he heals and is back to normal. Pride begets Murder, says the document of Dogs in the Vineyard, as it should be, for reasons known only to the King of Life, and there is no alternative without intervention of Dogs. This frames the actions of the Dogs, and therefore the choices of the players, as justifiable. The players, and thus the Dogs, or perhaps the Dogs and thus the player, know that without their intervention, the only outcome is ruination. First, the loss of a Faithful, then the loss of a town, then the loss of the Faith entirely. Therefore any choice, no matter how violent or immoral is capital-G Good. As it should be, for reasons known only to the King of Life.
Baker, speaking as the author, asserts early on that he is “just making this up” and that these details can suffer alterations to better fit the vision the reader brings. This freedom allows us to alter the nature of the diegesis, a useful tool to have in telling stories, but this discussion about textual analysis is focused on declaring facts of the Faith to be not factually incorrect, but morally wrong. By which I mean that Baker authorises us to change the facts of the Faith, but not to deny the nature of the Faith’s authority. This is the heart of document/text conflict: Though the document authorises an interpretation, the document itself never suggests the Demons are anything but true. The Faith is the only true religion. Demons, the document says, aren’t themselves corporeal, so they use raiding outlaws, disease, drought, or fires of the church meeting hall to affect the town.
To rebel against the document, then, is to declare this conversation about the Faith to be harmful. To rebel against the document is to put the book back on the shelf, and say that framed as it is, Dogs in the Vineyard is a game about religious zealotry, that demands players enforce violent authority upon minorities. This type of rebellion, while understandable, stops the conversation. The type of rebellion I want to explore is rebellion within the text.
Dogs in the Vineyard offers the player’s Dogs unmitigated power, and they are mechanically strong enough that they can never really be beaten. Dogs begin with a fairly even chance of success when talking to townspeople, but by invoking their power structures, whether that be their status as a Dog, their relationships within the town, their badges of office, or their Big, Excellent guns, the Dogs always have the capacity to overpower the Faithful. If the goal of a play session is really to find out who is sinning, who harbours pride, and put a stop to it, there is no conflict. The Dogs simply have to team up, and pull guns on anyone holding out on them, before finally shooting the Sinners dead in the streets. These decisions are consequential, certainly, but the consequences are always beneficial to the Dogs. Narratively, I’ve already spoken about how the alternative is always death and dissolution, and so any action is necessarily defending the Faith. But even outside that diegesis, in the endogenous mechanics of the document, the consequences to the Dogs themselves in these violent actions are also positive. In a 2009 interview with Ninjas vs Pirates Baker states: “People have come to me and said ‘Y’know i don’t understand why when you get punched in the gut or shot, what comes out of that is good? […] Why do you get more dice instead of less dice?’ and my answer to those people is always well if I took away your dice you’d never do it, you’d never get shot if there were a punishment.”
In a game where the stated goal and the stated methods are so easily aligned with so little obstacles, there’s so little conflict for the characters…Until we start imposing our own morality as players, or from a perspective of authorial intent, until we start considering Vincent Baker’s morality as one who has departed from his Faith.
In a reply to a reddit post, Baker wrote: “The game asks the GM to pretend to agree with The Faith’s shitty archaic rules, for purposes of town creation. During play, the town creation rules don’t hold and the GM shouldn’t enforce them. (With, if you’re me, a sigh of relief.)
The Faith expects the PCs to enforce its shitty archaic rules. The game doesn’t. The game hopes that the PCs kick that shit to pieces.
Never, ever play Dogs in the Vineyard with people who agree with The Faith. Yikes.”
And…while I totally understand what Baker is saying, I’m not really sure his assertions about the game are true. I think that that is his intent and aligns with his beliefs when he wrote Dogs in the Vineyard, but art is about so much more than just what the author intended. It’s important here that when Baker talks about the “game” that “hopes the PCs kick that shit to pieces” the term is nebulously undefined in the two different terms we’ve been using so far, and it doesn’t cleanly fit into any of them.
If we take Baker’s reference to a “game” to mean the “document as a manual of play”, it leaves behind an interesting question. The document, as I’ve said a couple of times so far, doesn’t leave a lot of space for defiance. At a diegetic level, talking about the reality of the Faith, the factual nature of demons, and the inevitable spiral of sin, the document itself lends the characters no steps in how to defy the Faith. It is important when we consider a big part of Baker’s design goals was to make a game that Mormons could play straight, while feeling their religion was respected and not called out as false or damaging. Endogenously, too, there are no mechanics that support defiance of the Faith. In fact, in that earlier reddit post, Baker admits: “I don’t know how well the game text communicates [defiance]. My guess is, poorly, because I’m a cagey writer. But if you feel like reading the game charitably, you could read it with that in mind.” And to be charitable, the capacity for Dogs to create new Doctrine does provide the characters an avenue for rebellion. They can, with but a word to the townspeople, change the laws of how they live. Dogs can enact progressive policies, grant mercy, and absolve those they deem worthy. However, the document itself is really clear that sin progresses if the Pride is not removed. Validation of that Pride, arguably, doesn’t stop the inevitable dissolution to Hate, Murder, and the destruction of the Faith, which again the document of the game assures us is the only option. In that charitable reading, one could interpret that establishing new doctrine to validate Pride stops it from being Sinful, but that’s an interpretation of text, not a reading of the document.
If however, we take the statement “the game wants you to kick that shit to pieces” to mean “the text, as interpreted by the reader”, well…Yeah, your mileage may vary. Vincent is, as he identifies, a cagey writer, and the lack of explicit structures or discussions of defiance in the document can make it difficult to read that in the text. I, personally, have. I’ve said in previous conversations that my favourite Dogs in the Vineyard towns are about testing whether the Dogs give up on the Faith. I have no interest in playing a game straight that is about reinforcing religious zealotry. But I’ve played a TON of Dogs, and I’ve played with people who are interested in that. Interpretation of text is built by the context of the audience and the the document. For the same reason that an author can’t just assert some non-textual piece of information to be true, an audience should not be asked to take leaps without some level of textual support. Therein lies a very fine line in the Venn Diagram between analysis and fanfic. And while Vincent’s cagey writing is a contributor, I think it’s bigger than that.
Rebellion is Tough, Y’all
Any art that purports to be one thing, while expecting you to see it as another is walking a very fine line that will have at least some if not most of the audience reading it for what it appears to be on its face. This is why it’s important that the document itself ensures that its framing is at least focused on revealing the flaws of those who have power, rather than on the flaws of those who are powerless, for those instances when interpretation is missed. Dogs in the Vineyard has only limited allowances for this. In a reading considering only the truth of the document: the people, the powerless (and importantly those who are different, who are queer or women or indigenous or poor) are framed as the cause of other people’s misfortuntes. When drought strikes the faithful, it is because Brother Jebidiah is in love with Brother Samuel. It is because Sister Patience is getting ideas above her station as a woman. This document’s explicit support for the Faith leads to a very dangerous environment for engagement: People who play Dogs in the Vineyard straight, even in good faith, will do harm.
This is where I feel the pain of Baker, and the ten years between release and now. Baker wrote a game which respected the Faith as a metaphor for Mormon faith, and very intelligently, did not define the actions of Dogs in rebellion. That defiance was left to the players and is much, much more powerful for that fact. However, because our culture has struggled so much at actively exploring the rejection of texts during play, and because there is no textual support to assist us on that journey…it has led to a lot of harmful games of Dogs in the Vineyard. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our Vineyards, but in ourselves.
Writing and Reading for Defiance
In his video “Annihilation and Decoding Metaphor” Dan Olson of Folding Ideas discusses diegetic analysis of work that is clearly meant to be interpreted thematically, or textually, and has this to say:
And God do I have the same feelings about playing Dogs in the Vineyard with people who refuse to acknowledge defiance. Within this discussion, Dan states that “it is rare to find someone who will entirely reject the idea of approaching film broadly from a thematic or metaphorical point of view, but all too common to find people who will lightly sneer at attempts to do so, and suggest that it’s overthinking things.” And that is, unfortunately, also Tabletop RPG culture. One only needs to look at every OSR blog determined to “keep politics out of my games”, or rather to never look at those ever, or at every indie RPG that refuses to engage with the idea of metaphor at all, playing hard and straight down the line with its message with little room for textual analysis. Demanding their audience is a passive participant of analysis, rather than an active explorer of the unknown.
So the question becomes: When writing something that we want players to accept as a document, but reject on a textual level, when writing games that scream that a thing is true while wanting players to disagree, how do we go about it? Especially when we really importantly want them to defy the text and not the document. That is we still want players to engage with the game same as any other, but to interpret it differently. Going back to my reading of Dogs, the framing of God’s Watchdogs as villains is because the Faith is wrong. When we remove the justification for their actions (asserting the will of the King of Life to remove Sin), the actions are no longer justifiable. Demons aren’t incorporeal manifestations of human greed, they’re just realities of hard frontier living. Drought comes to the West, crops suffer blight, sickness takes the young and old, and the world keeps turning with or without the preachings of Stewards. In order to make that reading of the text, I have to first accept the document. In order to discuss the impacts of the Faith on the Faithful, I have to first buy into the diegesis that the Faithful exist. I’m not rebelling against the existence of Dogs in the Vineyard as a game, I’m rebelling against the values of the main characters. And that’s a big step for us to take in TTRPGs. That rebellion is critical to deeper readings of RPGs as a whole, and also the only way that Dogs in the Vineyard is tolerable as a text.
In the wave of indie games between 2010 and 2018, a large part of design philosophy has been to constrain player actions. Provide Moves, provide questions, provide answers. Make play into a ritualised behaviour. Set up a specific play experience that offers exactly what is on the box. These games are incredibly effective at achieving what they set out to do, but they also benefit from a culture where the players are working with the designer to ensure that experience. They aren’t written for a culture of textual exploration and analysis.
So how do we write defiance into a game? In these games that demand structures of play, the easy answer would be to write a rule, a move. When you defy the restrictions of this game, roll+COOL. When, as a Dog, you rewrite doctrine, make a conflict with the Faith. But the minute we create a rule that supports rejection of the themes and motifs of the game, it’s no longer rebellion. It’s no longer defiant. It’s sanctioned. It’s no longer interpretation. Given that games are about rules, are about placing restrictions on people, is it possible to write a document that authorises players to defy the structures of play while still leaving it rebellious?
Or do we not even bother? Do we rather start at the other end of the textual conversation? Vincent’s cagey-ness as a writer is important because, as said before, the straight reading of Dogs is so harmful. But it’s doubly important because we are so inexperienced at finding these metaphors without explicit direction from the author. Without having that space left for us, as an audience, as players, we don’t really have the tools to carve it ourselves. When I talk about Tabletop RPGs having a culture of Auteur Bullshit this is what I’m talking about: The assertion of Author’s intent as a priority in how we interact with our games. We constantly require the designer of our games to carve space for us, because we are so used to treating all parts of a document as rules, focusing more on finding a fundamental fairness or truth than on creating meaning. We don’t seek meaning, we seek Sage Advice. We seek some 2065 pages of Sage Advice. About the most hyperspecific interpretations. While, sure, we, the authors, shouldn’t release documents without the capacity for interpretation, we, the audience, should enforce our own rights and abilities to interpret games as text. As players we should bring ourselves to the games we play, and as designers we should both leave space, and provide tools to carve more, where we can. Tabletop RPG analysis and critique is, at the moment, focused almost entirely on functionality as buying guide for unaware consumers. It’s so obsessed with usability that there’s little discussion about whether these games support our growth, our development, our understanding of others. We treat games like scientists and, well, maybe Goldblum was right. We can offer our games more meaning than just where they slot into our little slice of capitalism, we can offer our players more than just value for money. We can demand more of designers than just 2d6+Stat. We can do more than just win, we can understand. We can find more than just fun. We can find meaning.