Transmedia and tabletops (rules of the text 3)

If a rule, in general, is a constraint placed on an agent by the agent’s cultural situation, then in a cultural zone understood as appropriate for play that general sense of “rule” transfers nicely to a sort of constraint that allows a player to make choices (cf. Sid Meier’s famous definition of a game as “a series of interesting choices”; it’s also worth noting, for my future plans, that “metaphor” means “transfer,” etymologically speaking). The constraint of such rules of play at the same time creates what we can call a practomimetic possibility-space–what many critics of games would call a “gamespace.” A game-rule constrains players of a game in such a way as to create a range of possible play-actions; a game’s ruleset is the sum total of those play-action-defining constraints in a given instance of game-play.

In this post I argue that that same understanding of what a ruleset is applies equally well to a literary text, and that this application is worth making because 1) it allows us to critique games and literature commensurately, and 2) it allows us better to locate both games and literary texts both in current cultural experience and in relation to older cultural experience.

In the first post in this series I used the audiobooks of A Song of Ice and Fire to illustrate this idea; now, having at last received my DVD copy of the HBO version of the same work, entitled Game of Thrones, I might make the same illustration by means of that masterly performance of Martin’s ruleset. Better, a comparison of Roy Dotrice’s audiobook performances of the books, John Lee’s audiobook performance of one of them–A Feast for Crows (Book 4 of the Song)–, and the HBO team’s production of A Game of Thrones (Book 1 of the Song) as Season 1 of Game of Thrones, will help me make my point much clearer.

The seeming pedantry of enumerating the exact titles, formats, and book and series numbers of the above works (all equally instructively viewed as a single work, as the Iliad is viewed as a single work despite being a patchwork-quilt of lays sung by different bards) is actually quite germane to my point: each of these instances of A Song of Ice and Fire is its own playing out of the ruleset established by the text–which, as we saw in my last post, is itself a playing out of a ruleset established by the set of cultural materials GRR Martin drew, and then elaborated, upon in composing it. They must all both be seen as a single work, and seen as separate works or, perhaps better, as separate instances of the single transmedia work. Definining art in terms of rulesets can lead us, that is, to a new understanding of how what we now call a “work” organizes itself in culture apart from the individual agency that we used to think of as the province of the author.

This notion of what a work is when seen in terms of its rulesets is very well illustrated by tabletop RPG’s like Dungeons & Dragons (an illustration that will both help me fulfill a promise made in the comment thread of my last post and connect to Andrew Devenney’s recent post here on PtP). Tabletop RPG’s, in which a group of players together craft a narrative performance within a multiply-determined ruleset (multiple in that some of the rules come from the game-rules, others from the game-master, and still others from the players themselves) demand to be seen along different, though parallel, lines when we discuss the relationship of works of art to game-rules.

The thought experiment of a tabletop RPG based on the world of A Song of Ice and Fire helps greatly here: such a ruleset (including of course such content-driven and -driving constraints like choice of character-class, choice of origin, and narrative geography) would allow players (in which category I would include the gamemaster) to create performances that would stand as individual instances of the work, analogous to e.g. HBO’s Game of Thrones.

In these blog-posts I’m trying to establish the “Great Chain of Practomime” as a theory on which to base a critical methodology that can ignore the false border between games and literary texts, and by extension between those things and other kinds of practomime like film and painting. According to that schema the hypothetical A Song of Ice and Fire: the RPG’s ruleset would be one link in the Great Chain, while D&D would be another; their positions in the chain, though, would be crucially, though also deceptively, different. It’s the deceptiveness that will round off this post, and point me towards the next.

D&D organizes many of the same performance materials Tolkien organizes in The Lord of the Rings (indeed, some of its performance materials, like halflings and rangers, come directly from The Lord of the Rings) and Martin organizes in A Song of Ice and Fire; in that sense D&D, as a ruleset, “hangs” on the chain from multiple dependencies, while the hypothetical Song of Ice and Fire RPG seems to hang directly from one–the text of the Song.

But of course such a practomime would hang also from D&D itself, just as Roy Dotrice’s performance hangs both from Martin’s text and from the incredible range of dramas he has performed in, and which he both uses to shape his reading of the audiobook and evokes in his listeners’ memories. Just as HBO’s version hangs also from the films on which its visual style draws (notably Ridley Scott’s period work and HBO’s own Rome). My chain is becoming a web, or perhaps a hauberk.

Each link, each knot (nodus, a Roman would say), is a performance–that is, a re-compositional enactment. When we read the records of such performances as A Song of Ice and Fire–even when we read such records silently–we are ourselves performing such a re-compositional enactment: the text is enacted in our imaginations, and because we are individual agents, unique both as individuals and also even from ourselves the way we were the day before, we must re-compose the text as we enact it.

The ruleset of our performance is first and foremost the textual record left by a performer like Martin, but just as Roy Dotrice re-composes that ruleset when he records the audiobooks, just as a dungeon-master re-composes the ruleset of D&D, allowing his players to do the same; just as a bard re-composed the Wrath of Achilles, and allowed his audience to do the same–just as all those performances draw on uncountable numbers of other performances–, our own re-compositional enactments of Martin’s Song play by a ruleset that is itself determined by our performance, in the moment of that performance.

That last formulation seems to me to imply that rulesets are bigger than we usually give them credit for; one benefit of analysis across the text/game boundary may be that it allows us to read game-rulesets (that is, what’s there in the code–or the box–and only what’s there in the code, or box) as occasions for performances that complete those rulesets, rather than as artifacts usefully analyzable in themselves. In the next post in this series, I want to see if the comparison to text, and its transformations, can add some cogency to that argument.


  1. While I am — if you will pardon the pun — on the same page with you in considering reading and playing to linked by the idea that both experiences are shared by interacting with rulesets, I wonder about the rules of reading and especially, by extension, gamespaces.

    What are the rules of reading? If I flip ahead in a book, am I subverting the rules? If I read from the back to the front, is that subversive play? If I am listening to an audiobook and I jump around, is that a remix that is using the text to create a match a possibility in the space or is that something different?

    That is what interests me in the use of the term practomime (or, you know, partial knowledge performances), is that it seems, at least to me, that it necessitates the need to understand the metaphors at work, to be able to parse the transmedia experience in such a way to be able to explain the narrative as it unfolds.

    As is the case, I imagine, with using D&D is that we are using the ruleset to create the re-compositional enactments — composite performances as narrative? — in order to tell a story and, at the same time, act within the story. Both roles, actor and director, exist simultaneously as presented by the ruleset.

    This is, to wrap back around to reading, a similar thing, right? We become the viewpoint (actor) and as the director (flipping the pages) as we experience the medium.

    1. Author

      As far as I can tell, reading is itself a form of play, and to speak of the rules of reading is tantamount to speaking of the rules of play–which are of course infinitely multifarious. Reading in itself has no rules except those made within an individual instance of the practice. So to compare reading a novel with playing a D&D campaign, both are performances within rulesets; the ruleset of the novel appears to give fewer choices, the D&D campaign to give more, but from another perspective each ruleset supplies an infinite number of ways to perform using the materials it affords.

      Of course, certain kinds of discourse have more strongly implied rulesets than others do. The House of Leaves and Choose Your Own Adventure books imply rulesets that seem to present more possibilities than the novel does. But just as Wizards of the Coast provides meta-rules that allow every other rule to be broken, so too Middlemarch can be read like Ulysses. Video games would seem to be less malleable, but I’d suggest that even beyond hacks and mods the absolute requirement of a player-performance to make them legible (this is what I want to write about next) makes them equally fluid.

      1. Oh! I have to say something about this. While many may say, as you have stated, “Video games would seem to be less malleable,” there are, at least from one perspective, much more malleable than books or even D&D-like rulesets. Video games are unique in that their world states can be frozen and reloaded — save files exist.

        While I might be pause a session of D&D or stop reading a book, I am not making an exact copy. Some information is being loss and added each time people gather again to perform an activity. Ignoring for a moment that the game or book might have changed us in the experience, when we return to it we are different than when we left it. At the very least, we have had some chance to process the material.

        Yet, and here is where video games are so utterly strange, players can, in most instances, brute force a problem. If I do not understand something in a book, in my case, I might skip over it or look up a word or concept I do not understand. In D&D, this might be “delay of game” or else a term explained to a new player. Video games though can be read and then restarted with new knowledge and each time, with that new knowledge, the experience is different. The performance (one would hope) reflects this new knowledge of the rules and expectations.

        As you mention and I hope you write about soon, that legibility is incredibly important. Without the ability to understand the feedback the game is providing, we are lost as players. We can skip ahead in a book or overlook a rule on occasion to push the play forward in D&D. But with video games, we can rarely do that. (I’m all for having the ability to skip combat, dialogue or whatever else, by the way.)

        Mastery on some level is necessary to advance. As the mechanics and choices increase, the player must rise to each occasion and, if they cannot read what to do next, all is lost. For them, if the game is not legible, it might as well be over.

      2. Author

        Dan, thanks so much for that thought. It’s maybe the best possible illustration of how performances become rulesets–much better, for instance, than trying to persuade people against all appearances that the same thing happens with the text of the Iliad.

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