The poetics of TTRPGs

I have often expressed, in a pseudo-jest of oversimplification, that I prefer novellas to novels, short stories to novellas, and poems to short stories. I have always been more drawn to the meditative experience of an impossibly-concise framework than the contemplative experience that length and breadth brings. That isn’t to argue that either experience is objectively better, more difficult to create, nor more serious or worthy of being canonized as art – I, myself, personally just find something extremely satisfying in art that I can hold in a single breath. That oxygenates my blood and travels throughout me.

At Gen Con this year1, I had the opportunity to play Alex Robert’s For the Queen, a short, card-based, no-dice-no-masters TTRPG. The basic gist is that all of the players are on a journey in wartime with their queen, and characters and narratives unfold as players answer questions prompted by the deck of cards. You don’t really need a table, you don’t need to write anything. It’s an incredibly distilled essence of roleplaying. The experience soaked into me, stuck in my mind. A week later, I was trying to figure out why, and how, and it occurred to me that the game is a poem.

My mind repeatedly wandered to another game that I love, that similarly demands I pore over its delicacy: The Quiet Year by Avery Alder. The Quiet Year is also free of masters, and also deck-based2. Cards lay out events that happen during a given season, and players use these events to draw a map that tells the story of a community. Two common themes between these games are cards and lack of a master, but I don’t think either of those elements specifically makes a game a poem. Cards prompting events are randomized, but it’s not the chaotic, make-or-break randomness of chucking a D20 at your GM. An egalitarian system free of masters adds an odd aura of intimacy within the group. They’re poetic elements, certainly, but that’s kind of like saying that in literature, everything that rhymes or
looks like
is apoem(period)

And certainly, there are a bunch of formalized rules that we can scrutinize and calculate and determine that aha! A given piece of written or spoken word simply must be a poem! But that’s clearly not what I mean, and I don’t know that it’s productive to try to break down countless elements and rule sets to establish an encyclopedic guide as to whether or not a given TTRPG will give me this lingering satiety. To me, it’s simply about feeling, much of which I believe comes from crossing boundaries, challenging expectations, and doing it all with the crash of shocking brevity.

Let’s talk about a game I haven’t actually played, Orc Stabr by Liam Ginty and Gabriel Komisar3. Fitting on a single sheet, it is a simple game (though a game made more traditional by way of both dice and masters). I suspect it is a fairly quick game, but again… I have not played it. Aside from the game itself, however, there was an additional experience layered onto it, a bit of a metagame if you will. It was launched on Kickstarter, and all of the materials for it were written from the perspective of its orc designer, Limm Ghomizar. Backers could get a full sheet of paper, or a hand-torn half-sheet of paper, encouraging them to find other backers to form a full, playable sheet with. Every sheet had something custom done to it – crayon doodles, recipes, custom rules, handprints, all manner of weird things that simply served to make each copy human, personal, and unique. Seeing folks post about their copies when they received them and just knowing that everyone was getting some different bit of weird was an act of art in itself. And that had that lingering feeling of something once, seemingly rigid, being shattered in the medium.

Clever means of introducing interactivity to narratives have always existed outside what we understand and refer to as gaming. Things like Fluxus’ event scores, the Theatre of the Oppressed, Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Community storytelling has always been a thing, and presumably ‘interactive storytelling, but with rules’ is not a particularly novel concept either. It’s almost certainly unfair, then, to presume that there’s really anything new about what feels like a Gygaxian mold being broken. But I do feel like I’m seeing more and more of this sort of thing being done very intentionally in a space dominated by long-campaign, dice-laden, hack’n’slash systems. There’s a vibrancy to the sense of art and emotion that is being put into games, and that I think seethes through the players of these games.

And that, to me, is poetry.

  1. I wrote a post about Gen Con that I’m unlikely to publish, it was more for the sake of diarism. Suffice it to say that my anxiety toward travel and planning made it difficult, but that it was a fun, wonderfully queer time, and I had some very positive new experiences. ↩︎
  2. The Quiet Year technically has dice, but they’re essentially used as counters. The game also runs several hours. It’s heavier than For the Queen, for sure, which I think gets to my point well… Trying to nail down some exacting set of qualifications is futile. ↩︎
  3. I am friends with the folks behind Orc Stabr, and scribbled on quite a few copies of the game myself. I may have more invested in the experience I describe because of that, but I’m not being compensated to speak kindly of it. Just a lil disclaimer. ↩︎