Postmodernism and RPGs

If you’re a millennial and deigned to even dip your toe into art or literary criticism, you ended up in a discussion about postmodernism at some point if only because of the time you grew up in. Modernism was a dominant bloc of philosophical and artistic thought in the western world from the 19th through the twentieth century, heavily informed by how society was changing at the time. While I’m not an especially well-read critic (I had the good fortune to study engineering in school, which is why I can blog for free), I do understand the broad tenets of modernism, which are rooted in scientific inquiry and the ability to discover truth, human capacity to create order, and an implied mission to improve all aspects of life and society through creation of something new. Modernism rejected earlier principles of realism, allowing for more innovations of form in visual art, music, and literature. And if you think I’m not about to tie this back to RPG theory communities and extensions of form like journaling and lyric games…well, you’re wrong.

Postmodernism as a movement rejected modernism as a matter of course and rejected the notion that reality could be experienced the same way by all people. For this reason Cyberpunk evolved as a uniquely postmodern subgenre of science fiction by, from the earliest points in its genesis, constantly questioning the nature of reality. Blade Runner was about questioning what sentient life was, and Neuromancer was as well when looking towards Wintermute. By coining the phrase ‘consensual hallucination’ to describe the net, William Gibson also began to poke at what the future internet really would do to our perception of reality (and if you don’t believe that’s prescient, try leaving your phone at home for a day). Cyberpunk was also of course postmodern because it dared imply that there could be a ‘dark future’ as opposed to the highfalutin marvels of Star Trek and Isaac Asimov (modernist pillars both).

For me, though, understanding how the notions of postmodernism map onto RPGs suddenly came into stark relief while reading Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. The book is in some ways as dated as Chuck feared it would become in its foreword, but if you’re an older millennial or Gen Xer you’re going to recognize most if not all the touchstones around which the book’s essays are based. For me, it was his essay on the seminal video game The Sims which really helped cement what postmodernism means in games. It’s not hard to see how The Sims is a post-modern video game when it’s literally a video game about mundane life. Given the landscape of video games at the time and the relatively even-keeled subject matter of the first game (it began to get goofy early on but by The Sims 3 you’re not really in Kansas anymore), it was kind of a strange funhouse mirror look at life, which had its own bizarre rules and consequences (including, for the sadists, the mechanics of swimming pool ladders). The Sims questions the nature of daily life by gamifying it, and forcing you the player to ask how the hell it ended up the way it did.

It’s that notion of creating your own reality with your own rules where I turn to RPGs because, well, that’s what a role-playing game is. You play characters within a construct of a world, and that world is governed by rules much simpler and in many ways kookier than what we have to deal with out here on Earth. Now, there’s already been some deconstructions of this inherent reality, and pretty much all of them have to do with D&D. The biggest, likely best-known example is the webcomic Order of the Stick. Order of the Stick follows a typical D&D adventuring party in many ways, but these characters are completely aware that they are in a world governed by the rules of Dungeons and Dragons. Order of the Stick #1 involves the characters turning the tide of a combat as they get converted from D&D 3e to D&D 3.5. This is played more for laughs than anything else, though the comic gets a bit more serious with its deconstruction as it continues.

Speaking of deconstruction. There is one designer who should likely get the most credit for designing successful postmodern RPGs, including one which is usually the only one anyone knows. Greg Costikyan has a long resume, but that resume ends up including ‘king of self-aware postmodern RPGs’ because he designed both Violence and Paranoia. Violence is not really intended to be a playable game, exactly, and it’s offensive/edgy enough that Costikyan initially credited himself as ‘Designer X’ instead of putting his name on the game. The notion of Violence is that the characters are adventurers going through a D&D dungeon crawl…except the dungeon is modern apartment blocks, and the monsters are just other people. While intended to be satirical more than anything else, Violence is still built on the idea of taking the underlying setting principles of D&D and removing them from a fantasy setting,  questioning the implied reality of The World’s Greatest RPG to fairly appalling effect.

The earlier and arguably more successful of Costikyan’s postmodern works is Paranoia. Paranoia is more metatextual than Violence, and for its humor to land, the players must have all played RPGs before. Paranoia takes place in a classic Orwellian dystopia called Alpha Complex, where the characters are troubleshooters for “Friend Computer”, the artificial intelligence which runs the place. What Paranoia depends on is the systemic violation of underlying principles and social contracts of good gameplay at an RPG table. Instead of working together, the players are intended to betray and backstab each other. Instead of being an impartial arbiter of the rules and guide towards a good time for everyone at the table, the GM is to be a capricious and self-aggrandizing unreliable narrator, changing facts and taking pleasure in overly literal interpretations of player requests and actions. It is a game which is fully aware that it’s a roleplaying game, and fully aware that being a bad roleplaying game is the thing that makes it good and interesting. It also takes the physics implied by its rules excessively literally, not only as meta-commentary on rules lawyers but also in a way that makes it clear that Alpha Complex could only possibly exist in the world built on the rules of Paranoia.

Chuck Klosterman defined postmodern art as “art that is conscious of the fact that it is art”, and that got my brain going about RPGs. Violence and Paranoia are certainly games which are aware of the fact they’re games, and Order of the Stick is a comic which knows it’s actually taking place in an RPG. But are there other RPGs which are truly postmodern in this respect? The answer isn’t no, but I think there is a lot of room to investigate what roleplay within the confines of a game truly looks like, making the answers to the question broader than I may be thinking or intending. Although I don’t know if this was done intentionally, Ross Cowman’s games Fall of Magic and City of Winter are very deliberate about using components and building an environment that is supposed to be a game. The reality of those games is defined by the games themselves, and while not making a statement on the fact it does strike me as at least a bit postmodern in execution.

Why care, though? I think for me it has to do with some facets of modern (heh) RPG discourse. There are pushes from multiple groups of designers and thinkers in the space to push away from any value that the game as art holds, to use as few rules as possible and ignore that the game itself adds tot he experience. There is an implication that there is purity of play when it’s unfiltered by mechanics. It’s not merely that I disagree with this, it’s that it’s simply wrong, and we know it’s wrong because we’ve done this before in art and music. Ironically it was in modernism where we saw abstract art and atonal music and weird film experiments (all in pursuit of ‘the new’), and similarly it could be argued that modernism came late to RPGs with theory heavy discussion groups like The Forge seeking a very modernist ‘universal theory of everything’ when it comes to RPGs (this does imply that Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel are archetypal modernist RPGs). What I’d posit, then, is that aiming to go back to fewer rules and ‘purity of play’ is reactionary, in a way that is about as productive as cussing out Bob Dylan for playing an electric guitar. That’s not to say there’s no value in being rules-light or in design economy (or acoustic guitars), but fewer rules is absolutely not a virtue into and of itself.

It should be unsurprising that I want to get weird. Postmodern RPGs that I’ve mentioned so far lean into deconstructionism and self-awareness, but I’d personally like to see more questioning of reality, at least questioning why the RPG is the way it is. The RPG form is stolid and conservative, I was just discussing how it took the length of my lifetime to finally make one step away from just being wargames. Maybe we question the nature of what we play, and look to Bunnies and Burrows or A Cozy Den. Maybe we question the nature of what we can do, and go deep into time travel or meeting sixty versions of yourself from alternate dimensions or writing your own pocket dimension. Or maybe we question the nature of play at the table, and someone writes a version of The Sims using the ruleset of Warhammer 40,000. Writing a one-word lyric game is modernist thinking. I want to question the nature of exactly what it is I’m playing. That’s going to take some interesting mechanics.

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2 thoughts on “Postmodernism and RPGs”

  1. “Postmodernism as a movement rejected modernism as a matter of course and rejected, at some level, the notion of an objective reality.”

    Not really, no. There is no rejection of the notion of objective reality but rather a relativization of discourses that claim to be the sole repository of that objective reality.

    What postmodernism says, following Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, is that behind such discourses there is a will to justify a given order that does not necessarily emerge from this objective reality but rather from power relations that come to impose a truth.

    The arbitrary processes of naturalization and essentialization in this type of discourse remain quite typical, it allows to forbid any criticism since what is of the order of the natural or of the essence is not to be questioned.

    It is not for nothing that the alt-right is the most brutal and relentless detractor of postmodernism.

    This does not prevent us from criticizing postmodern texts, but it must be done properly, with an argumentation and an analysis that goes beyond simple invective (and the moral panic that goes with it).


    1. I did make some clarifying edits because you have a fair point. That said, “relativization of discourses that claim to be the sole repository of [] objective reality” were not words that were ever going to show up in a sub-2000 word article about roleplaying games.


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