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Dungeons & Disaster

Published: 7 January 2021 Author: Uma Breakdown

This short essay is about using Role Playing Games (RPGs) within art, adapted from the experience and practice of NewBridge member Uma Breakdown. The text can be used as a toolkit to introduce RPG techniques as a means toward both artworks in the form of games, and as tools for developing creative practice.

Dungeons & Disaster: Everything I learned about art I learnt from the Monster Manual

As much as a “Tabletop Role Playing Game” (TTRPG) is a game, it can also be thought of as a collaborative storytelling system.

On one side of the table is the “Games Master” (GM) who has selected or written the context or world in which play will take place. This World includes the location, real or imagined, the social conditions, ecology, weather patterns, politics, economy, language and so on.

On the other side of the table are the “Players”. They each have a “Player Character” (PC), a fictional figure that they role play as within the World of play. Through their PCs the players explore the World, interacting with its inhabitants the “Non-Playable Characters” (NPCs), all of which are roleplayed by the GM.

Between the GM and the Players is something else that both must interact with, collaborate with, conspire against, or surrender control to. This something is the TTRPG’s “Game Mechanics”.

Mechanics include the rules that govern what actions can be taken by the PCs and NPCs, as role played by the Players and GM respectively. If a Player wishes their PC to perform an action it might involve the negotiation of a Mechanic. For example, a Mechanic might be something that decides how likely the action is. The Player states that their PC is about to attempt something at the very limit of their ability, and so the Mechanic requires that they roll some dice to establish whether the outcome of this action is the one they had intended, or whether something else happens. In this way,  TTRPG is both a collaboration between people (the Players and the GM) and mutual collaboration with the Game Mechanics.

As already outlined, some Mechanics introduce unpredictability into the role play. Not everything works out in practice exactly as we imagined it in our heads. This unpredictability becomes a kind of friction in the game. This friction shouldn’t be thought of as negative, or something that must be overcome, TTRPGs are very rarely about “winning”, rather they are about the continuation and enrichment of the story being told in play. In this way the Mechanics that introduce unpredictability open up new possibilities for where the story might continue.

Mechanics influence the role play of a TTRPG in other ways beyond introducing uncertainty of outcome to a proposed action. The game being played may well have Mechanics that propose and structure the actions themselves. A clear example of this is where the game has Mechanics for actions that are not physically possible in the real world, such impossibly advanced technology, superpowers, or magic. These Mechanics offer new potential actions to progress the story (travelling to another galaxy, passing through a solid wall) while also adding restrictions and requirements that must be met to perform them. Just with the dice roll example above, these Mechanics open new avenues while restricting others. Even Mechanics connected to actions that are not impossible in the real world open new avenues because they act as a provocation to try something the Player might not have considered otherwise. This is one of the main values of Game Mechanics to the collaborative storytelling of TTRPGs, acting as prompts to take creativity away from familiar paths and avoid the familiar pulling the narrative towards entropy.

In 1964 Yoko Ono first published “Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings”. The book’s many instructions operate very similarly to the Mechanics of TTRPGs already described. Take this example,

 

“CONVERSATION PIECE

Bandage any part of your body. If people ask about it, make a story and tell.
If people do not ask about it, draw their attention to it and tell.
If people forget about it, remind them of it and keep telling.
Do not talk about anything else.

1962 summer” (Ono, 2000)

 

If we think of Conversation Piece only as an instruction (ignoring its other meanings as an “artwork”, or a score for a “performance”) it is a Mechanic for provoking new creative choices by both opening new avenues by restricting others. Conversation Piece sits on the table between the person following its instructions, and the people they interact with. Conversation Piece restricts choices while prompting new ones. It provokes and expands the interactions that cross the table.

Just above I wrote that we need to think of Conversation Piece “only as an instruction” and try to forget anything we might already think about it either being an artwork, or the score for the performance of an artwork. A reason why I think that playing, writing, or thinking about TTRPGs is of value to art practice is that we don’t have to try and ignore as much other stuff in order to focus on the process and how it can lead to new ideas, methods, or perspectives. We can think about the TTRPG as the final artwork, an object towards playing.

But we can also think about the playing of the game as the artwork, therefore it is different every time and is not just authored by the artist that wrote the rules but but unpredictable rolls of dice and the improvisations and rule bending of all the players.

Finally we can also think about the TTRPG as a tool towards an artwork. A device used in the studio rather than in the gallery, a way of developing and testing ideas. Of applying restrictions to escape entropy. Of surrendering control to regain some agency.

TTRPG are also useful for artists because they very much mirror the kind of feedback loops that occur so often in the studio, and so can provide new perspectives on these. When I wrote above about Mechanics adding “friction”, that friction is what we often go into the studio to work with. We know that the action process of performing an action might not be exactly what we imagine before we start. What we end up with might not be what we planned, and this goes not just for the big finale of the finished artwork, but the end of every small action on the way there, each one can be broken down into even smaller pieces.

And this is the big thing that I think artists might find useful from working with TTRPGs. They are never finished and fixed. The rules of a TTRPG are really final, because they are always being adapted, recontextualised, re-negotiation, or simply changed[1]. The playing of a TTRPG never resolves into something solid and final either, because every game will be different. Lastly, even when one game has played to a point where all agree it’s story has ended it is never really finished because all involved know that every choice involved along the way had other exits that could have been followed. The collaborative story is as much the potential of where things could have gone as where they actually did go. TTRPGs highlight the importance and excitement of things being unstable and ongoing, ready to be reactivated by a new context or agent of disorder.

For people interested in TTRPGs, and especially in ones that are lightweight and can introduce the idea of writing or adapting your own, the best place to start is the genre of “One Page RPGs”. As the name suggests, these are games where the entire rules fit on a single side of A4. This includes both things like CRAM “The rules fit on one side of a single sheet of standard US letter size paper” (Gerard, 2014) or the work of designers like Grant Howitt who have hundreds of One Page RPGs available for free (Howitt, n.d.-b) including the famous “Honey Heist” “where you are a criminal bear with two stats: CRIMINAL and BEAR (Howitt, n.d.-a).

 


[1] Almost universally across TTRPGs is the acceptance of an often unwritten meta rule that overrides everything else written and is called “Rule Zero”. Rule Zero says that all other rules are only ever guidelines and can be adapted or discarded in pursuit of following the main aim, which is to have fun.

Bibliography

Gerard, R. (2014). OnePageRPG.com. CRAM. http://www.onepagerpg.com/

Howitt, G. (n.d.-a). HONEY HEIST. Imgur. Retrieved 5 August 2019, from https://imgur.com/gallery/Zpg4G

Howitt, G. (n.d.-b). My games. Look Robot. Retrieved 5 August 2019, from http://lookrobot.co.uk/games/

Ono, Y. (2000). Grapefruit: A book of instructions + drawings. Simon & Schuster.

Parker. (2018, April 23). Want To Run A One-Shot RPG For Tabletop Day? Micro-RPGs Have Got You Covered. Geek and Sundry. https://geekandsundry.com/want-to-run-a-one-shot-rpg-for-tabletop-day-micro-rpgs-have-got-you-covered/

Uma Breakdown is an artist/writer/researcher working around horror studies, feminist literature, and queer RPGs. They received an MA from the RCA Sculpture School in 2008 and in 2020 completed a PhD that was mostly about Kathy Acker, Georges Bataille, Hélène Cixous, dogs, and Resident Evil.

Uma recently created Animal Agency for FACT Together, a downloadable game inspired by the concept of the ‘ahuman’.