Monday, February 2, 2009

The Urge To Document

I read a large number of videogaming blogs; these are largely concerned with opinion, with analysis, with criticism, and with speculation. They engage directly with the medium, and in as much as they contain personal experience, that experience is used as a form of commentary upon the game itself.

I've been looking for that sort of thing in roleplaying. It exists, but it exists at the bottom of the deep and murky sea of roleplaying journals.

Roleplaying gamers document. They do it obsessively. They write up sessions, they describe characters, they relate anecdotes, they diarise worlds. If your game is good, chatters the gestalt, then it must be recorded.

Videogamers don't do this. No matter how much you loved Mario Bros, you don't write up your play sessions as prose novellas. Not even computer RPGs. You can love Final Fantasy, you can talk Final Fantasy, you can even create Final Fantasy fanfic, but you don't ever translate the actual game into text.

There are some reasons why roleplayers document, both valid and invalid. The most pressing is the impermanence of the medium. Once a session is played, it is gone. It's a transitory experience, like watching theatre, and performance can never be recaptured once it is performed. Humans don't deal well with impermanence, and we're forever attempting to trap the momentary in the illusion of eternity.

Another reason is the mistaken belief that a story is a story is a story. It can be easy to think that what makes good narrative at the gaming table will make excellent narrative in a novel. This just isn't the case. Interactive multi-participant stories lend themselves to certain techniques that don't pace well in a novel; they demand validation for multiple protagonists and they thrive on cliches and stereotypes that fall flat on the printed page.

Gamers often mistake the sequence for the game. Documentation rarely rises beyond an embellished narration of what has happened to the player characters. It seldom captures the performances of the GM and the players, the pre-conceptions of the players, their interactions with the mechanics, and the ebb and flow of pacing caused by late arrivals and pizza orders. Good players and good GMs take these things into account every bit as much as the rest of the game, and a session can be made by a snappy and compelling in media res resumption after dinner as much as it can by the structure of a key encounter.

I'm against documentation. It's a crutch for GMs. Documentation provides the illusion that a weak game can be made strong by reduction to writing. Games should embrace the medium, and work because of the impermanence, the group interaction, the unexpected intervention of the real world, and not in spite of it.


Zubon said...

I documented a short-lived campaign with friends. Each session became a one-page narrative. This helped when people would forget what happened a week before.

But now it is ephemeral, since I have the only copy, and it will be fully gone if I ever hit delete.

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm guilty of game-documenting myself; but I think it's ultimately a bad habit.

I think also that recaps and "previously on" documents are a special case, where they provide a solid benefit to the quality and cohesiveness of your game.

I also appreciate the humour in a post on over-documenting appearing on a blog dedicated almost exclusively to pulling apart one module.

Anonymous said...

Found this through a link on the WotC DnD forums about someone looking for a gift for the party story documenter. Just wanted to comment that there are plenty of write ups about video game play throughs in the form of Let's Play forum posts on various web forums. is a gathering place of some of these write ups and while some are just the facts, many are written in story form, telling a tale from the perspectives of the character(s) of the game.

Greg Tannahill said...

Congratulations, Anonymous. You just found the new bottom of the internet.

Unless we're talking about reports of high-score attempts or tournament matches, write-ups of videogame playthroughs are, without doubt, the lowest form of prose. Lower than Pokemon slash fiction. Lower than Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball fanfic.

I'm lost for an appropriate metaphor; my mind just keeps filling with the word "FAIL", and that's not a complete sentence even if you write it seven times in a row in capitals. Unfortunately.

Kurosau said...

Uh, Greg, why the hate? I'm liking your posts, but your reply to Anonymous comes across as a bit rude.

Greg Tannahill said...

Oops. I had assumed the anonymous poster was sharing the link in a kind of "let's all facepalm together" sort of way; I was intending to be laughing with him, not at him. Or her.

That said, I'm typically unworried about offending anyone who comments anonymously, but if someone feels genuinely personally attacked I apologise, that wasn't my intention.

I don't think a bad idea is immune to being a bad idea, or an inherently juvenile one, merely because it's engaged in passionately by multiple people. Game write-ups, particularly when they're not intended to support the game they belong to in some way, really are a kind of literary pacifier, engaged in as a buffer against the wider world of genuinely creative writing. They are by nature amateurish in the bad sense of that word and they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of storytelling and drama. Implicit in their creation is a lack of confidence by the author in the worth of their own work ,and they're unlikely to build either that confidence or the talent levels behind it through such a creatively sterile form of writing.

I could expand on that but it's becoming more and more a rant about writing and less about roleplaying. As always, the only fun to be had in having strong opinions is being vocally disagreed with so I encourage people to explain my errors at length.

whitebaron said...

well, i DO agree with some of the assessments.

however, documentation is a good thing, but not in the way many people believe it is - it's sole purpose should be to be able to better keep track. whether you do it on your own, or on a blog, its not important - as long as you don't believe people will LOVE your stories... because that's one of the failures many people have - they believe their roleplaying stories are the best and thus they absolutely have to share them.

Kurosau said...

Greg, you mention that these game writeups are effectively surrogates for writing a story, the idea being that the writer wants to write something creative but doesn't think they can. What do you think of the idea of a game writeup that's written for the purpose of doing a game writeup? I read actual play logs on occasion, and I don't see them as being a branch off of a creative writing drive as you've mentioned.

Greg Tannahill said...

I think I mentioned in a past comment that I'm not intending to include documentation that's specifically intended to improve the actual play sessions, either by organising information or acting as a memory aide.

The two vices are in assuming that documentation in some way creates or captures art, and in believing that your gaming anecdote will in some way amuse those who weren't present to see it first-hand.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, while some Let's Plays are pretty horrible -- as you said, dry recordings of what happened or lame attempts to dramatize, the best of them are hilarious reinterpretations of the events, sometimes sliding into the realm of "alternate character interpretation" by giving the main character an internal monologue that's completely at odds with the world around him. These often come off as MST3ks of the games, and are far from fails.