Roleplay Is Folk Art

Adapted from the original I wrote for the fantasy audio magazine CANDLE.

Under the Ogl’s Gaze

Recently there’s been plenty of turmoil in the roleplaying hobby, especially among publishers, about the rumored moves by Hasbro to cripple the open-gaming license, which helped trigger the OG OSR renaissance in the early 2000s.

This is not an article about that. But I bring it up for two reasons.

Reason one. From my very first roleplaying experiences, cobbled together from half-understood and ill-matched books, I’ve felt no loyalty to any corporate rules-as-written game. I saw roleplay as an activity, akin to playing in a sandbox, and not as roleplay® the licensed and correct game.

Reason two. From my very first foray into writing roleplaying games, I’ve felt zero desire to write licensed or derivative content. Partly, this was hubris—”I can write a better game!” whispered an arrogant ghost in my ear. Partly, this was suspicion of making my creative efforts vulnerable to the reflexive hunger of any corporate entity.

This second, along with an early experience of having my creative work stolen by others, has made me—against my own inclinations—quite aware of the state of legal protections and intellectual property as it pertains to the creative artist.

I bring this attack on the Ogl because it rhymes with my contention that roleplay today is closer to a folk art* than a licensable game.


Roleplay as Folk Performance Art

More and more, I suspect that the tabletop roleplaying game experience is only tangentially about the games being played. The people at that table, rolling those bones, are there, enjoying themselves, for another reason. A reason that, by the impish ironies of life, Gygax the accountant-inventor of D&D didn’t seem to understand very well.

Behind the spreadsheets of probabilities, the harlot tables, the dice-rolling mechanics, the character backstory generators, and the random encounter systems hides a folk art tradition.

The published books, codified rules, and accumulated procedures— the material strictures of play—create a framework that encourages an inventive, collaborative art form. Some uncanny cross between improv theater, campfire ghost stories, literary jazz, and—in its heroic tropes—epic poetry and fairy tales.

I can already hear some gamers aghast, “Nay, we are not actors, mere players, we are gamers, full of numbers, full of skill, full of pride!”

To them I say, “Is and is not may coexist.”

To be less obtuse, “It can be both a game and an art form. Those  aren’t exclusive.”

“Quietly it crept in and changed us all
Immortal land lies down in agony”

—Blind Guardian, Nightfall, Nightfall in Middle Earth (1998)

While some live-play shows have become popular (popular performance), the heart of the roleplay experience remains explicitly private and domestic, created by amateurs** at kitchen tables over frozen pizzas and greasy sheets of paper.

The table (those players participating) and the session (that time outside of time dedicated to roleplay) together combine to create an unrepeatable folk performance art by the players for the players.

I think that is a key part of the attraction of roleplaying: in a world of standardized, mass-produced experiences, every single roleplaying session offers the possibility of unpredictable, organic, perpetual, self-creating fun.

At its best, a good session or cycle of sessions, becomes a landmark in the lives of its participants, a shared performance of creation immortalized in the stories friends tell one another for years and years to come.

Now, if that’s not art … 

The Oddity of the Roleplaying Game Designer

The role of the rpg designer is fascinating. We create the ditties and toys and lyrics, the toybox of improvisational elements that a group of players will jazz with, coming up with stories and experiences from the interaction of their imaginations and ideas with the restrictions wrought by dice and text and procedures.

The rpg designer absolutely can not know what the final outcome will be. It’s really wonderful.

I must have now read several dozen stories of how peoples’ adventures in the Ultraviolet Grasslands turned out and each was different from anything I had ever imagined in some spectacular, magical, unexpectable way.

I suspect that if there is one traditional artistic pursuit that comes closest to capturing the aesthetic and performative role of the rpg designer, it is that of playwright.

We provide the setting, the props, the dress, some instructions, a few pieces of dialogue … and then the director … excuse me, the game master (haha, to imagine one could be a “master” of players, better ’twere to imagine one could herd bats) presents those for the actors, merely players, to interact with.

And lo and behold, each time a unique performance happens, a singular interpretation that cannot be repeated.

As an rpg designer, I feel deeply honored to be trusted by players who take my words and ideas into their homes, bring them to their tables and sessions, and make them their own.

Back to the Ogl

From the perspective of roleplaying as a folk performance art, what does Hasbro’s essay against the Open Gaming License truly mean?

I really can’t say how it will pan out for D&D™ the brand and the product.

I’m not alone in using dnd as a generic term. In my daily use, it’s well genericized, like hoover and cola and aspirin and laundromat and catseye and linoleum. In publication, I am more circumspect, of course. But that is simply because the printed word can be policed far more easily than the word spoken or thought.

At this point, roleplaying is a moderately popular folk art. It’s adapting to new mediums (zoom, virtual tabletops), languages, and cultures. It’s normalized in other media and counts among its amateurs everyone from professors to journalists, movie stars to formula one racers.

What can Hasbro achieve? They can make a prickly-pear fortress and harvest whales, or embrace and encourage the further growth of the creative hobby.

I suspect roleplaying as a folk art will do just fine, with Hasbro or with Hasn’tbro.

I’m certainly going to try and write a few more plays for folks to game into their own performances.

On Definitions, Aside

*Folk Art

I don’t mean “folk” in the old ethnographic sense of poor, marginalized, illiterate, traditional, native, or somehow less than. I mean it in the more contemporary sense of by folks for folks, reflecting the folk groups we all live in.

It’s the “low” art of folks having fun being creative, not the “high” art of professional products made for sale and status.

Low, in this context, doesn’t mean bad or unworthy, simply that it is not a professional pursuit subject to some kind of academic ranking of proficiency and expertise.


Amateur in the old meaning (per Merriam-Webster, of “one who performs something for love rather than for money.”

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10 replies on “Roleplay Is Folk Art”

Personally I’ve started referring to all fantasy TTRPGs as “D&D” again. Does it have at least one dungeon, and at least one dragon? If so, pop the label back on and have at it!

I know. It’s dreadful. The author should be funished for trying to be so punny.

Amazing little “think piece”, Luka. Nailed what provides, for me, the feeling of incantation with the hobby and the proccess of designing stuff to be pulled apart by other people. It´s indeed folk art :)

Thank you for writing this; it gives words for what I aim to do.

A very interesting article! I would love to see a follow up post with more insights.

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