Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Tabletop is Theatre, Videogames are Film

Theatre and film are intimately linked mediums of artistic expression. They use many of the same core ingredients (visual, sound and dialogue, time, performance) and even employ most of the same optional conventions (experienced in a single sitting lasting a couple hours, uses non-diegetic music, usually presents the action in its own space and told in roughly real-time for most or all scenes, etc.). Obviously there are exceptions where one medium is used to do something quite different, such as documentary for film or an interactive murder mystery dinner theatre for the stage. But they are closely related media, with film arguably descended directly from theatre. Early film even copied most of theatre's conventions, such as all the action taking place on a "stage" viewed from a single, fixed camera angle straight-on, as though the screen at the movies was meant to be used as an illusion to replicate the "stage" that the audience was used to sitting in front of.
This clip is from King John, filmed in 1899. When movies were new, one of the first things they did with it is adapt Shakespeare, naturally. But as with all art, eventually film went on to discover its own strengths, doing things that you can't do with theatre.

A good example that has become nearly ubiquitous is the standard of placing the camera somewhere within the room that a given scene takes place in, placed at about eye-level. We take it for granted now, but like I said: movies used to look like plays. Now we experience them as though we have a surrogate literally standing in the room with the characters on screen, viewing things through the eyes of this imaginary, intangible "camera man." While there are occasionally examples of theatre where the action is brought out into the audience, it's certainly not the standard, much harder to pull off, and can't be experienced the same way by everyone in the audience of that performance (although you can pretty easily get away with some limited versions).

In time, what I feel has divided film and theatre more than anything else is the ambition of its production. Even the largest theatrical stage is quite small. You cannot enact a scene with hundreds of actors on a stage, as you can with extras in an epic movie. You cannot show the audience aerial shots. You cannot shoot on location and bring the action to real places in the world. And most importantly of all, you can't use CGI. I dare to claim that there is no way to adapt Avengers: Endgame into a stage play. At least not in a way that meaningfully preserves most parts of the experience.

Foolish people might conclude that this means that film is simply an objective improvement upon theatre in every way. I see it differently. Because while I personally enjoy film a lot more than theatre, I do enjoy tabletop RPGs a lot more than video games. And this question of production is just the beginning of my comparison.

Realism and Formalism

These are two terms used in media theory that are important to know: Realism and Formalism. Broadly speaking, realism is the effort to use art to simulate reality as seamlessly as possible, whereas formalism is the effort to use art in ways that cannot be achieved in any other form of description. So it's not called that because it's "formal" in the etiquette sense or something, but rather because it focuses on the form that the art takes. Let's talk about painting, as an example. A "realistic" painting might be, say, something like this photorealistic work shown below.

I know it's hard to believe, but yes. That's a painting by artist Richard Estes (who just turned 90 this past weekend!), a major figure of the photorealism style. Contrast this with someone like, say, Vincent van Gogh, whose individual brushstrokes show no indication that any effort was made to hide them.

If you ever see a Van Gogh in person, you'll notice that the paint was laid on so thick that it becomes sculptural. It's raised in little crests like ocean waves upon the surface of the canvas, casting tiny shadows when the light hits it just so. You can see it a bit in the sky depicted in the above example. In the world of painting, this is called having a "painterly" style. In the rest of the arts, though, this is called "formalism."

Most works of art seek to find a balance between the two sides of the spectrum. Almost all movies make use of the formalist techniques of editing and cuts, non-diegetic music, special effects, heightened lighting, color grading, etc. while also attempting to present a "realistic" narrative that can be understood easily and related to our own experiences of the world. More importantly, realist art often tries not to draw attention to itself or its artistic methods. It wants you to "forget that you're watching a movie" or "forget that you're looking at a painting." Formalism draws as much attention to itself as possible, saying, "look how fucking crazy this CGI is!" or "check out Edgar Wright's zany, 4th-wall-breaking editing and transitions!" Stylistically speaking, my favorite films are often the ones that say "fuck balance, I'm going hard in one direction of the spectrum." But the public at large tends to be heavily biased in favor of realism, and will heap endless praise on it while usually being divided or offended by excessive formalism. A weird number of people love natural lighting, shaky-cam, found-footage, and music that blends into the background instead of music that's fucking awesome. Speed Racer was a flop while The Social Network was a smash hit, even though Speed Racer is a way fuckin' better movie.

The reason I bring all of this up is that "realism" is something I feel is already quite well explored and advocated for in RPGs. The definition I've given of "realism" might not quite match other ones you've heard before, but after some consideration I think you'll find that they do all actually relate. When people define realism more along the lines of "believability," i.e. "the work presents an internally-consistent world" or "a world with verisimilitude that feels like it exists on its own outside of the game's events" then that's a form of pursuing realism over formalism.

From the Pathfinder 1E book, "Ultimate Campaign."
It is very often emphasized the value of the game as an illusion. That one of the highest achievements to which a GM can aspire is that perfect moment where the players are so immersed in the experience that they begin thinking and feeling like they're literally in the game world, breaking out in a real sweat when the lich appears or getting actually teary-eyed when an NPC dies. And of course, that boundless pursuit of "simulationism" in game design and scenario design is an example of determined realism, with GMs writing up complicated percentage charts to determine chance of business growth and your ROI (see right) or trying to incorporate the nitty-gritty details of actual metallurgy in the armor rules. Even when these things are fantastic rather than truly "realistic," they still fit the artistic definition of "Realism" because they seek to deflect attention from its nature as a game. They want you to forget the parts that remind you that you're playing a game and that it's fake and contrived and exists only in your minds. You know how people like to joke about how bad NPC AI is in video games or how there's conveniences like universal gun ammo or how eating a porkchop can instantly heal all injury? It's not like tabletop RPGs don't have their fair share of that stuff, and most people out there who want to give you advice on the "best" way to run your game will tell you to do everything you can to hide that stuff and make the players feel immersed.

I think that's a damn shame.

Firstly, I'm not embarrassed by the fact that I'm playing a game. I don't mind being reminded that I'm sitting around a table with friends, eating pizza, checking our phones, rolling dice, and constantly slipping in-and-out of character as we speak. The fact that I'm both attempting to occupy a fictional world that I can take seriously and having a party in the real world at the same time doesn't seem to be at odds, to me. In fact, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And more importantly, I'm fucking fascinated by all the unique possibilities that exist within this medium and no other. I'm going to go on another tangent about other mediums before getting back to D&D. Let's talk about comics for a second.

I love comics and I especially love comics that take advantage of the fact that they're comics and not something else. The most obvious examples would be any type of fourth-wall-break that plays with the comic format. This little doodle by Matt Feazell (of Cynicalman fame) is the earliest example I can find of this gag, which I've seen repeated many, many times.

A little less on-the-nose would be something like the style used by Alan Moore, who has said that he wants to tell stories that could only be told as comics. Consider Watchmen. In between each chapter is a little bit of multimedia storytelling where the reader is presented an in-universe artifact, such as excerpts from the autobiography of one minor character or a company memo written on merchandizing plans received by another character. Movies don't really switch to books or sculpture halfway through, but Moore is interested in playing around with what a comic can be. There's a whole chapter called "Fearful Symmetry" that is, yes, actually symmetrical. Here's the middle spread of the chapter:

It's not just in panel composition. Each pair of matching panels on either half of the chapter depict the same characters. The detectives investigating a murder on page 7 show up again on page 22, its mirror. They even often use mirrored or symbolically-linked staging within the frame. Bonus: for large sections of this chapter, the panels alternate between red hues and blue hues, simulating a flashing police siren.

In spite of this, Moore refuses to use many conventions of comic storytelling that are distinctive of the medium, such as thought bubbles, written sound effects, or motion lines. In fact, he ironically often favors cinematic techniques instead. One of his favorites, which he has admitted to overusing, is that one transition technique where you go from one scene to another by cutting to a new image that's really similar to the one you ended on:

Seriously, Moore instructs his artists to do this constantly. When I was flipping through Watchmen to grab examples, I found dozens in just a couple chapters. Sometimes it's just "in this panel, they're holding a chalice, and in the next panel, it's a flashback to them holding a dumbbell, and they're kinda similar in shape" or something like "in this frame we're looking at a Jack o Lantern that's just been lit up, and in the next frame we see Nite Owl's weird spaceship thing with the eyes just now lit up and it's kinda similar."

That said, I actually kinda like that Moore avoids thought bubbles, written sound effects, and motion lines. The alternative is really effective. Hellboy also avoids thought bubbles and motion lines, and it makes every action sequence incredible to read and so much more enjoyable than (pardon the blasphemy) the way Jack Kirby would depict action scenes. But a good example of a less-hokey convention of comic storytelling unique to the medium is when the artist uses the page itself as a greater composition than just the panels it contains. Here's an example from Art Spiegelman's Maus, in which he sort of "completes" the drawing of his dad on the exercise bike through the combination of many panels (even including a distinctly circular panel roughly where the "wheel" should be).

Alright, this is getting a bit indulgent. But we could talk about this with every medium of art. Everyone loves that Bernini's sculptures were so lifelike that it's absolutely coconuts...

...but I equally admire Rodin for how expressionist his sculpture was.

Likewise, literature has gotten more and more "cinematic" over time, but I kinda like when a book can't be anything other than a book, like with House of Leaves. I sort of love that The Catcher in the Rye has managed to never have a film adaptation after all this time, probably making it the single most successful and popular book to ever avoid that. Why? Because the first-person narration is so core to the way the story is told that it wouldn't really be possible. There are huge chunks where there isn't even story being told at all. It's just Holden talking to you, the reader, and sharing his thoughts or relating some characters and ideas and events to one another in a way that there isn't really a visual for.

I don't think that Formalist art is better than Realistic art. They are both valuable and offer their own strengths. But I do believe that it is important to the development of a medium that there are creators pioneering the formalist frontier. It allows the medium to mature.

What might that entail?

Qualities that make RPGs special

These are just some of the first few I brainstormed when considering this question. These aren't all unique to RPGs, but they're certainly atypical when compared to other popular media.
  1. They are a proletariat art. Yes, there are big RPG companies with money and influence. But RPGs might be more accessible to the masses for their own control than nearly any other medium of art. You can decide entirely what goes into your game and the profit motive never needs to affect it. Almost all the means of production rest in your hands. Literally. This is especially important for the type of content you get to explore. I have a campaign right now with 6 active players, 2 of whom are trans, and 3 of whom are playing a character of a different gender than themselves. I'm big on "emergent story" and this campaign has developed one hell of a drama just by the interactions of these players and the NPCs. The main conflict at this point is a 4-person lesbian love triangle, with a weird politically-contested megadungeon backdrop. The point is this: can you ever, in a million fucking years, imagine a mainstream film or show or videogame with something like that going on? But we get to do it because we're in control and we don't have to give a fuck about what an audience might be interested in paying to see.
  2. They are impermanent. We are so accustomed to art that's recorded at least semi-permanently. The whole invention of the written word is just a method by which our ancestors can communicate their thoughts to us long after they've died. Efforts to preserve "the one true experience" of a given work of art are taken more seriously in some media than others. We want to preserve paintings as best we can, right? But when it comes to music, there's often a pretty big difference from a studio recording and a live performance. But imagine the song that's only ever performed once. That's functionally what RPGs are like, unless you record your sessions. And sure, you could do that I guess. But the default is for RPGs to be something that exist only in the memories of those who participated, deteriorating over time and finally vanishing once that person has died. And even if it is recorded, it's not quite the same as being there, is it? You can watch Hamilton on Disney+ if you want to, but it's not the same as the performance that you were physically there to experience.
  3. They are communal. All art is collaborative, because there is always an artist and an audience who work together to make the work happen. But we can probably agree that the artist usually has a significantly bigger hand in things, except for those forms of expression we might call "interactive arts" such as video games. But even on the artist side of things, there's rarely a truly "single, visionary artist" at work. Everyone knows that film, television, and video games involve dozens of people in their production. But even books are largely written not just by their author, but by an editor or two as well, plus whatever story demands the publisher has. Total independence is often lionized as "pure," like the self-published author, the self-recorded-and-mixed-and-distributed musician, and all those comic book artists from the 90s who insisted on going it alone (Dave Sim, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, etc.). But something I love about RPGs is that I'm not the sole, visionary artist responsible for bringing the full experience into creation, conceived immaculately and delivered with grace to a subservient audience. At most tables, the GM definitely has a primary role on the artist side of the equation, but everyone is both artist and audience for each other. And it's not quite the same as a multiplayer video game, either. We are all the game's developers, and the servers are only running when we each show up to the table. It truly is ours to share.
  4. There is (almost) never a protagonist. Lots of storytelling lacks a protagonist, but I can't think of any other medium where it's the norm. It disrupts a lot of conventional story structure, and even when you play with unplanned, emergent stories, it still often produces weird ones. In many ways, everyone acts as a foil for everyone else in the party. Themes of teamwork, friendship, and arguments are almost inevitable in the stories created through this medium.
  5. They (almost) always use POV. As in, there are almost never major flashbacks or cutaways. The "camera" follows the PCs. If you say, "what about flashbacks in Blades in the Dark?" remember that those still follow the PCs' POV. They're less like true flashbacks and more like different parts of one continuous story being intercut together as relevant to the audience, rather than chronologically. You wouldn't really see people attempting a flashback to a point, like, several weeks previous in order to play out a whole 'nother adventure earlier in the timeline with the same characters, because it's too easy for that to break continuity. What if someone dies in that adventure? Or gets an eyeball removed? Or loses items they were later relying on? Or gains enough XP to level up? Or any number of other things. But retroactive story additions are pretty natural in this medium. "I'm multiclassing into wizard because.... uh... the party wizard has been teaching me a thing or two lately!" That said, I'll concede that there are plenty of exceptions to the POV rule, it's just an extremely dominant mode of storytelling here. In fact, even in the parts where you're not using it, you probably should be. A lot of people have a bad habit of describing a dungeon chamber from the top-down perspective when they should be describing it based on where the PCs are standing and what would be visible to them, especially limited by their light source. In a sense, the GM's narration shouldn't really emulate a book or a radio play. Rather, it should emulate a 1st person video game's camera, specifically in a game that doesn't really have cutscenes or cutaways during the gameplay bits.
  6. They are more immersive than nearly anything else. Maybe this is subjective, but I'm attempting to neutrally describe the way I see people behave when engaging in this medium versus others. And in RPGs, people take the fiction much more seriously than even video games. Sometimes I wonder if TV and movies turn people into temporary sociopaths. It is bananas watching the way people complain about characters they dislike in Game of Thrones or whatever and how insane, actually fucking insane they'd sound if they were saying those same things about real human beings. "I fucking hate Sansa, she's so annnoying and stupid. Why can't she be badass like the Hound and just kill all the Lannisters or something?" Meanwhile, D&D has a decades-long issue with alignment arguments because it's nearly impossible to play this game without moral and ethical questions being raised at even the most innocuous of combat scenarios. Sure, lots of people will talk about how squeamish they get when they're supposed to be evil (or even just mean) to NPCs in a video game. But when the engine is a human GM, it's just unavoidable. "What if these goblins have families? What if it's just cultural differences? What if this was their land and we're invading it right now? Fuck fuck fuck" That's just one form of total immersion into the hypothetical that stands out to me, but obviously there are plenty of others. I've talked before about how some players have trouble with tactical infinity, but at least as many others get a bit too distracted by it. They feel like they should account for every single possibility in the hypothetical, however granular, unlikely, or irrelevant. I feel this is partly because of the depths of tactical infinity inviting you to ask a lot more questions than you would bother with in a video game, which you implicitly understand is going to be quite limited in its scope.
These are all really interesting qualities about RPGs that I think we should turn our attention towards. For most, this means leaning into them and exploring their implications further, seeking to expand this medium in the directions that no other medium can go.

And yet, the tendency when people try to innovate in RPGs is usually to emulate video games instead. That brings me to the main subject of this post.

Video Games are Film, RPGs are Theatre

As I said near the beginning, video games are like movies in that they have much greater potential for production. They have impressive visuals and live animation. They have original scores, sound effects, CGI of magic and monsters, and potentially dozens of voice actors. They have meticulously-directed cutscenes and incredibly complex subsystems that account for hundreds of potential variables. And they can have that sort of thing just running in the background while you play the game because a computer is doing all the heavy lifting. They can include impossibly expansive granularity in, say, a single weapon's stats, because the computer can do calculations instantly. And of course, they're way, way more popular than RPGs.

But of course, we have to ask about practicality. As a guy who prefers low crunch, rulings over rules, and low granularity, I get kind of annoyed by efforts to replicate video game systems in RPGs when the designer clearly hasn't considered how feasible it'll be to implement at the table. A good example is fall damage calculation. The actual number of damage dice it should increase by per increment is a bit tricky to capture accurately and apply off the top of your head. And yet, that is never, ever, ever a ruling that I can imagine is justified to spend more than 3 seconds deciding on, so I will gladly welcome an unrealistic-but-simple mechanic instead. I am a big fan of procedural play, which is very similar to how many video games are constructed. But I like streamlined procedures where the GM doesn't have to juggle a million variables all at once.

In a rare moment of criticism against Ben Milton, I'm not a fan of the weather generation tables in the current drafts of Knave 2E. Here's what they currently look like:

In a book that is otherwise profoundly mindful of efficiently using page real estate and optimizing the rules-to-available-brain-space burden, I am a bit shocked that an entire page is devoted to this one gameplay element. Now of course, there remains a lack of consensus on how to nail rules-lite wilderness adventure, and there are many potential variables to incorporate and gamify. And I do appreciate that each keyword has at least one defined mechanical effect. But rolling 2d6 three times to generate the weather each day, then consulting the definition for each result and checking to see if there's any crossover effects that emerge from that combination, all for... weather?

I like adding in some fun weather and giving it a mechanical consequence too, so I'm not against this in principle. It's just a fact that everyone has a different threshold for "overkill" and that's where this lands for me. This is the kind of work I can't justify unless I could outsource it to a computer to resolve for me in the background. And not just in generating the weather, but also in remembering to incorporate all of its effects at each relevant moment as well.

But practicality is just the surface. For me, I'm a big believer in "less is more." Something I am fascinated by in theatre, and which I greatly admire, is the minimalism in both substance and presentation.

As for substance, remember that this is the medium from which we get the principle of Chekhov's Gun, the foundation of the "Law of the Conservation of Detail" taught in many storytelling classes. It's also where we get musicals from, in which short musical numbers are used to convey a much greater density of exposition, plot movement, and character development than is ever possible to achieve in the same amount of non-musical time (at least gracefully). For RPGs, I think many people's ideal game would be one that accounts for everything somehow. But I personally like the idea of a game that accounts for only a handful of things, those most significant to the intended experience or themes being explored. Brave has a death and injury table because I want it to be comically gritty and gleefully suspenseful. When I run Tricks & Treats, I don't even have a death or HP system because I just don't really see the need for that in the kinds of scenarios we're playing. You might create a really impressive set of rules for farmland management, but if I'm running a neo-noir mystery investigation game then I don't really want to try cramming that in there just because it's technically possible for it to come up.

As for presentation, I am reminded of something I once heard about the play The Fantasticks, one of the most successful shows in history. Allegedly, its entire set came in only three pieces: a tattered banner, a stick, and a cardboard moon/sun (it was reversible). I'm always charmed and impressed by how effectively stage productions are able to convey setting through just, like, one stage prop, a fuzzy-yet-recognizable backdrop projected on the back curtains, and maybe some clever use of lighting. It's not unlike season 3 of the Adam West Batman TV show from the 60s, which famously had reduced, minimalist sets (usually just a few props staged in front of a black background).

A good analogue for this in D&D is... well, I'd actually prefer to let Professor Dungeon Master explain. This is my all-time favorite Dungeon Craft video, which I highly recommend you watch the beginning of (you don't have to continue through the full crafting tutorial, of course). And while he makes this exact same Batman comparison, he emphasizes the (enormous) practical benefit of this method. I, on the other hand, am much more attracted to its artistic value. I know it sounds ridiculous, but my imagination is genuinely more captivated and fired up by this...

...than it is by these.

As Professor Dungeon Master explains: you don't even notice the missing detail, because your mind's eye is filling it in. I am so much more interested in the illusions constructed through a formalist approach than the illusions constructed in service to realism.

Another parallel with theatre is the physicality of the experience. Films and video games take place through the barrier of an electronic screen and speaker system. Tabletop and theatre are both live, with the performances mere feet from where you're sitting. This is a significant quality for both mediums. I was a bit skeptical about this when it came to theatre until I started seeing more shows. Like, when I was first learning about Shakespeare in school and they taught us what a soliloquy is, I thought, "I feel like it would seem weird for a character to semi-break the fourth wall and talk to the audience like that. Isn't that cheeky and silly?" Turns out, it's really effective. An actor staring straight into the camera has nowhere near the power of an actor making actual eye contact with you. And even aside from the human elements, tangibility comes through in the visuals, too. Video games and movies can render impressive CGI cinematics, but I can pick up and touch an RPG map or mini in the same way I can catch an object tossed from the stage or have the spotlight reflect off my own glasses. The tactile immersion of "Shakespeare in the park" is really satisfying in the same way that a good hand-out is in D&D. But RPGs aren't the same thing as LARP—they're only partly tactile. It's more comparable to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which had a really cool design that was sort of "pseudo-outdoors." What I mean is, above the stage there was no roof, but above the seating there was. So the audience feels like they're within a building in most ways, but the area where the fiction was taking place in front of them existed in a little pocket of outdoors, with natural lighting and fresh air.

In some ways, it's like you're watching the actors occupy another dimension that you're peering into. But in other ways, you are in the same room as one another. It's not like you can really point out where your plane ends and their's begins, just like in the weird diegetic barrier that we navigate in RPGs.

I've said before that I don't consider any RPG problem with a digital solution to really be a truly solved problem. I've used a virtual tabletop ever since the pandemic began and I've tried out those dynamic lighting features you always see people raving about. They're definitely neat, but if I can't replicate it easily on the table then I don't want to rely on it. Advanced Darkness is meant to be my solution for this. I'm proud of it because it's so easy to handle in your noggin'. I've praised Jacob Hurst's Hot Springs Island many times before, but it infamously has a pretty convoluted series of tables to roll on when you need to generate the factional encounters, for which there are digital support tools made available that can do it all for you instantly. Impressive? Of course. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's anti-formalist. It's counter to the strengths of the medium, like a movie with too much narration when it should be using visuals (or just be a book), or a video game with too many cutscenes when it should be finding a way to let you play through those moments.

Is it just computer problems that video games are good for? Calculations, juggling lots of variables, automating processes, rendering complex and detailed visuals, etc.? Well, I think there's more to it than that. Tabletop is also a lot more improv-friendly than video games are. In video games, the rules are the rules and they don't change unless there's a developer patch. In tabletop, you can just make up and use whatever rules you want, changing or ignoring them on the fly, and really just wing it. Compare this to how improv-friendly theatre is, and how there are never multiple "takes" like in film. Each performance is live, single-take, and has no editing... but is also more freeing as a consequence.

And of course, there's plenty of ways I can push my analogy through non-artistic comparisons. Film is more popular and profitable than theatre, as is video games compared to RPGs. There are a lot more new films and video games that get released each year than there are plays and RPGs (although both are too vast for any individual to ever "catch up"). Film and video games are pretty mainstream, theatre and RPGs remain firmly "nerdy." It almost always takes a lot more people to make a film or video game than it does a play or RPG. People watch movies and play video games at their own pleasure in their free time, whereas plays and RPGs typically have to be scheduled as a special night.


This was one of the first ideas I ever had for a blog post, but it's about a lot more than the analogy. It's about recognizing the potential that lies in distinct forms, refusing to accept that "bigger is better," and appreciating things in new ways. For most of the history of Western art, sculpture was seen as superior to painting, and was a far more respected skill for an artist to have. That's why many of the greatest artists were also accomplished sculptors. But Michelangelo's David doesn't include the sky, the color, or the expansive scope that his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel have. Because there isn't really any such thing as a "superior medium." And while I was never a theatre kid (I'm too cool for that scene), I'm drawn to RPGs principally because of their theatricality. And I ain't talking about the "improv acting" parts.



  1. I appreciate the trouble you've gone to here to illustrate the difference between realism and formalism, and how you've done so without casting either one as simply good or bad. It certainly makes me want to read your other posts. Cheers.

  2. Hi Alex, I've sent you a message to your art instagram. I'd appreciate your reading it. It is about a possible collaboration with the content of your blog and our digital publication, Dungeon Vault Magazine. Thanks!

  3. Yeah, absolutely! I'd love if you sent me a link to it when it's published!