The RPG Course – Lecture Two

Yesterday was the second lecture of the roleplaying studies course that I’m attending.

I notice I have garnered a bit of attention with this. I’ve been getting hits from strange places, some of which I’ve had to put through Google Translate to understand what they’re saying. It’s mostly variations on the theme of “lucky bastard”, which warms the cockles of my heart.

Today’s topic was tabletop roleplaying games. The lecturers went over stuff like power in narration, the question whether there is or isn’t a story in a roleplaying game session, and what the hell is a story, anyway, and so forth.

And then there was the dread diegesis.

“Diegesis” is one of the terms that I’ve heard bandied about in RPG theory for about as long as I’ve been aware of it existing. Ironically, it’s been mostly Stenros and Montola bandying it about. For the first time, I actually understood the concept.

It’s probably easiest to use a movie as an example. Diegesis is, in short, what is real inside the context of the story. In, say, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy, his whip, the temple and Mola Ram and all that crap exist inside the diegesis, are real within the film. The John Williams score is outside the diegesis – Indy doesn’t hear the familiar chords every time he performs feats of derring-do, or he’d probably get fed up with it right quick and keep to the classroom. It is possible, of course, that a character dreams or hallucinates some of the events, but even in that case, the act of dreaming or hallucinating exists within the diegesis.

I hope I got that explanation right. If not, someone will likely be along shortly to correct me.

Every player also creates his own diegesis, because every player interprets the game material in a subtly different fashion. This was illustrated with a Knights of the Dinner Table strip, where B.A. (the DM) tells the party they see a beholder, his concept of it described with the beholder illustration from the 3E Monster Manual. The party’s different interpretations of this were different pieces of beholder art from other supplements, except Dave’s, who had no idea what a beholder was. Though the different pieces of beholder art have a number of differences between them, they are still identifiably the same creature and though each player’s concept of the beholder is subtly different, they are still compatible enough for the game to smoothly proceed. There is a constant process of negotiation between the players to find an equifinal diegesis.

When it doesn’t work, it leads into the Tale of Eric and the Gazebo. Which the lecturers acted out in front of the class. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed with tears in my eyes on a lecture before.

In addition to the lectures, we also have articles to read, included in the 31MB pack of course material. For this one, we had a pair of articles from the collection Gaming as Culture, by Dennis D. Waskul and Sean Q. Hendricks. They’re very basic descriptions of roleplaying games from a sociologist’s point of view.

I did find a point of irritation in Waskul’s article, “The Role-Playing Game and the Game of Role-Playing”, though, in his example of “bad metagaming”. It is a direct quote from a player interview, and the game is explicitly stated to be Dungeons & Dragons.

Once, when we were fighting an army of goblins – well, maybe an army is over exaggerated, but anyway – because one of the players knew the average hit points of a goblin and the average damage of his fireball spell, he knew exactly how many times he would have to cast the spell. While it could be seen that the player would know this, it seems that the player took the role-playing out and turned it into a numbers game – which, in my opinion, takes the fun out of the game!

Which doesn’t really hold any merit whatsoever as an example of metagaming. For a start, it cannot be generalised into any game system that cannot be reduced to a numbers level. Additionally, the details, when viewed inside the context of Dungeons & Dragons, make no sense. A goblin’s hit points are, depending slightly on the edition (and the article only refers specifically to the third edition), around 5-7. In every edition of the game, a fireball spell does 1d6 points of damage per level of the caster. It’s a third-level spell, and a wizard gains it at level 5. Therefore, the minimum damage of a fireball is 5d6. The absolute minimum that can be rolled, with a really crappy roll, would be five. A fireball will more or less automatically kill any goblins it hits. The example makes no sense because it makes it look like it’d take some sort of calculation, analysis, or conscious thought to count the fireballs, which it doesn’t, since anyone who’s played a character to the fifth level will know that a goblin has jack and shit for hit points and hitting a goblin with a fireball is much like hitting a first-grader with a frag grenade. Now, class, how many frag grenades can a first-grader take? Anyone? Bueller?

Essentially, unless the player really rattled out the numbers in that instance, one cannot say that metagaming has happened, and even then, I’d call it bad roleplaying instead of metagaming

Oh, and what the hell is a fifth-level wizard doing fighting goblins, anyway? They’re what you fight at first level, and amount to little more than speed bumps at fireball levels. Using a fireball on goblins would be a waste, anyway, since the group’s fighter and cleric can just wade in swinging and take them all out without expending a third-level spell, a valuable resource.

I’d say a far better example of metagaming would be a player utilising intradiegetic information that his character can in no way possess – for instance, after a PC and an NPC have had a conversation without the presence of other PCs that was played out at the game table before all the other players, using information gleaned from that conversation even though your PC was not present. Or the classic example, when a party member is getting his ass kicked on an alley while the rest of the party is carousing in the inn, the carousers suddenly getting an urge to go check out the local graffiti.

Next week, LARP.

Perhaps I should review the course for Roolipelaaja. I wonder if I can get a five if I promise to give them a top score?

Roleplaying 101

I am now quite convinced that the University of Tampere is the right place for me.  I already got a pretty good clue last year when I noticed that one of our Options courses in English philology featured H.P. Lovecraft and another is entirely about science fiction, but this one really sealed the deal.

I’m taking a course on roleplaying studies.

Originally, I was gonna just go hang out at the lectures and see if there’s anything interesting I can learn – it’s a Hypermedia/Media Culture course, at the subject studies level, which usually aren’t taken until the basic studies are finished, and I haven’t done any of those. Nor will I. So, I went there, since there was a convenient gap in my schedule, and the other lecturer, Markus Montola, talked me into taking the course.

The damn thing is worth six study credits and only includes the lectures, a 3,500-word study diary and, I kid you not, playing or running a roleplaying game session. The list of approved games is fairly short, but of the seven games, four (Under My Skin, Fat Man Down, the LARP Prayers on a Porcelain Altar and The Upgrade) are distributed in PDF as study material, and the other three (Praedor, City of Itra [hah!] and “Joutomaa”, out of Juhana Pettersson’s Roolipelimanifesti) I own. I figured that doing Praedor could work. I’ve never actually played the damn thing. Running it would probably be ideal, since many people on the course aren’t gamers and Game Masters may be in short supply.

I’m just slightly worried about my eventual grade. The last time Jaakko Stenros graded anything of mine, it was rather crushing.

The first lecture covered the basics – first they defined what’s a game (including some interesting linguistic limitations – it is a rare day indeed when English has inadequate vocabulary for something), then they defined what’s a roleplaying game, and at this point we’d been sitting on our asses for three hours. It was very entertaining, though. Montola and Stenros had good witty banter going on, and then, you can’t make a lecture about games too serious.

The course is off to an interesting start. Next week’s lecture will cover tabletop RPGs. I’m looking forward to it.

I will probably be blogging about the future lectures as well, and possibly the course material, once I can get the damn things. University web courses, never working like they should…