Imaginary Entertainment Environments, Transmedia, and the Old-School Renaissance

This is another post growing out of the Of Wizards and Wookies panel discussion, which featured memoirists Ethan Gilsdorf and Tony Pacitti talking about their respective experiences in gaming/fantasy and Star Wars fandom. During the Q&A period I wanted to come up with a question that they could both answer, but wound up being unable to unpack the idea I wanted them to discuss sufficiently without doing that thing that drives me nuts in Q&A sessions – “please call on me so I get to talk and show off how smart I am, there isn’t actually a question here but I’ll raise my intonation at the end so it looks like one?” Here’s another attempt.

It seems to me like one of the interesting connections between D&D and Star Wars is that they’re both what Daniel Mackay calls “imaginary entertainment environments”. For D&D, this is an essential characteristic of what it’s all about; for Star Wars, it’s something the franchise grew into. In The Fantasy Role-Playing Games: A New Performing Art, Mackay writes:

From its early roots in war gaming, the fictional setting of the role-playing game has been very important. After all, the thrill of war games was not only the thrill of leading an army of soldiers to victory over an opposing force, but also the sense that the victorious player had just won an historic battle, often a battle that may have been lost in the history books. The emphasis of the fictitious setting did not recede when Dave Arneson began to run his early fantasy role-playing games. In fact, much of the appeal of the early role-playing games was the opportunity to pretend to live within another world. The episodic nature of role-playing games calls for a consistent, memorable setting within which the characters can interact. The theater of the role-playing game needs a stage.

This stage – the consistent world, which different characters can explore discrete but inter-related pieces of throughout their many separate adventures – is the imaginary entertainment environment. In the abstract for a presentation he gave at 2006’s International Workshop on Strange Convergences,  Mackay wrote:

The role-playing game is responsible for introducing the idea of the imaginary entertainment environment, or shared world, to the world of commercial entertainment. Always latent in both occidental and oriental mythologies, the role-playing game allowed for the identification of a fictional setting that changes over time (diegetically) and that has those changes communicated to the audience/participants through a variety of media. Throughout the eighties and nineties, the role-playing game influenced commercial entertainment forms in such a way that the consistency of the fictional setting, across media, was emphasized.

This claim that role-playing games introduced the idea of a consistent world which can be experienced through many different approaches – what folks call transmedia nowadays – is originally made by Lawrence Shick in 1991’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games:

The popular genre of “shared world” fantasy and science-fiction books, in which a number of different authors write interconnected stories set in a consensus fiction world, was derived from the consensus storytelluing of role-playing games. In fact, many of today’s most popular fantasy novels are based directly on role-playing game worlds.

It’s easy to see how my generation of kids who grew up with D&D were also eager consumers of each step in Star Wars’ transformation from a single cinematic experience into a comprehensive imaginary entertainment environment. Watching the film left me with a powerful desire to spend more time in the world it presented; the marketing of action figures that I could use to play out my own Star Wars fantasies generated movie-industry-transforming profits; within a decade I could simulate the whole-body experience of being there in the Star Tours ride at Disney World, and on the way out I was funneled through a gift shop that carried West End Games’ Star Wars RPG. Full circle back to the original (and for me still the greatest) way to temporarily live in a fictional universe.

To my regret, I didn’t pick up WEG’s d6 classic; in 1987 I was already too busy trying to deny who I was in the service of seeming cool and getting laid (here I sigh not only over all the games I could have been playing, but also all the girls I could have gotten somewhere with if my primary concern in life hadn’t been worrying what others thought of me). But I do remember vividly my first transmedia experience, Jon Freeman and Paul Reiche III’s Electronic Arts game Murder on the Zinderneuf. Courtesy of my Atari 800XL, I became a detective who finds clues and interviews suspects to learn the secret of the crime. The manual notes that one of the suspects “has been overheard in the middle of the night crying out in an unfamiliar foreign tongue.” When I first encountered this in the game – Ia, ia, Cthulu f’tagn! – a pure sense-of-wonder thrill ran down my spine.

As a nerdy teen-aged outsider I was fascinated with following the traces of secret knowledge that interconnected the stories of Lovecraft’s mythos. Here was a chance to be on the inside of something concealed from lesser minds, and to unexpectedly encounter a reference to this occult lore in a computer game was like having a rock star come up and flash me my little clubhouse’s secret recognition signals. Transmedia shattered the confines of my adolescent world to reveal one that was awesomely vast and connected by hidden passageways accessible only to the fannish elite.

For those who don’t recognize Paul Reiche’s name from the Grognardia interview, his biography in the Murder on the Zinderneuf manual supports Mackay’s link between RPGs and imaginary entertainment environments:

Paul Reiche, a co-founder of Fantasy Art Enterprises, is the author/designer of several role-playing games and supplements including The Necromican, Booty & the Beasts, and (with a little help) Ringworld. He toiled for a time in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where he produced more games and supplements and some Dungeons & Dragons revisions evidently considered too heretical to see the light of day. He now belongs to CTHULHU, a loose organization of TSR “alumni” who publish the world’s funniest newsletter.

Interconnected worlds have gone from being a thrill to a turn-off for me. Asked for my favorite Heinlein novel, I chose the modest standalone A Door Into Summer in part because it was never subsumed into Number of the Beast’s once mind-blowing revelation that dude, all the author’s work is just glimpses of an ineffably huge tapestry that stretches from Oz to the Bible. And the Dragonlance series, which Mackay uses as a central example of how commercial imaginary entertainment environments started as role-playing products and expanded into other media, is also the old-school renaissance’s go-to example of everything that went wrong with our hobby in the late TSR era.

I think this is another example of how the OSR is both a product of, and a reaction to, the way that RPGs conquered the world. We know that it’s awesome to visit a world that seems to exist independently and stretch far beyond any one glimpse of its inner workings. But we’ve been having that experience for so much longer than the average consumer that if the imaginary world isn’t exactly tailored to our needs as gamers, it’s not worth paying for; complaints that role-playing gamers relate to commercial transmedia content in a cynical fashion don’t surprise me at all.

The old-school renaissance seeks to recapture a time when the imaginary entertainment environment was the creation of hobbyists and fans instead of marketing teams. Often, we choose a setting developed at the dawn of RPGs and seek to prune its transmedia exfoliations down to a manageable canon. As Mackay recognized, this has long been one of the ways gamers deal with the growth of commercial imaginary entertainment environments. I think the OSR’s unique spin is that we don’t just stop at deciding to include only content released before a certain date, like deciding to play in a Star Wars universe based only on the first film; as hobbyists we go back and try to reconstruct stuff that the creators promised during that golden age, but never delivered. Note that it takes a massive, Internet-connected fan base to produce the 0.001% of people who’ll be interested in doing this kind of scholarship: the OSR needs the modern mass market of geek culture to be able to consider a hobbyist alternative.

But even more essentially, the Old-School Renaissance encourages us to turn back the clock by creating new shared worlds for ourselves, starting with a blank slate and letting the universe we’ll inhabit accumulate through the process of play. The thrill I got from the Cthulu reference in Murder on the Zinderneuf was based on my identification with a subcultural group: that’s marketing. The thrill I got when I met a D&D player whose character was a cleric of a faith based on the misadventures of one of my characters was personal and direct: that’s unique.

Being a fan of an imaginary entertainment environment can give you the feeling of living in a vast universe, but being a fan of the original spirit of D&D – rather than its commercial outgrowth that I first saw replacing player’s imaginations in the early ’90s, when for the first time there was enough stuff published that you could spend a hobby’s worth of hours reading other’s work instead of making it up yourself – lets you become one of its creators.


10 Responses to “Imaginary Entertainment Environments, Transmedia, and the Old-School Renaissance”

  1. 1 j
    November 24, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    Very interesting and well-done piece. I particularly liked:
    “But even more essentially, the Old-School Renaissance encourages us to turn back the clock by creating new shared worlds for ourselves, starting with a blank slate and letting the universe we’ll inhabit accumulate through the process of play.”
    Exactly right. Well said and much appreciated.

  2. 2 MG
    November 25, 2010 at 12:00 am

    Perhaps I’m a simpleton, but it seems to me that comics, especially the Marvel comics of the 60’s were working with shared worlds well before RPGs were on the scene.

  3. 3 maldoor
    November 25, 2010 at 1:06 am

    Tavis, a second excellent and thoughtful essay in a row. My recommendation: stop futzing about with blog posts and turn these ideas into a book or academic article. You know you want to.

  4. November 25, 2010 at 1:28 am

    Thanks, j and maldoor (and James yesterday). Eric’s Glantri campaign is an even more encompassing example of a collaborative creation than my White Sandbox because it’s grown to encompass adventures from multiple DMs, a tradition of forum carousing that’s highly player-driven, etc; he started with less of a blank slate, though, proving that DIY is not the only virtue.

    MG, good point; I agree that comics are an important & early example of shared worlds (although the Cthulu mythos is a still earlier predecessor, as is religion and mythology). That’s not part of the story as Mackay or Schick present it, perhaps because SF is considered more prestigious than funny-books and RPGs aspire to be taken seriously & so attached themselves to the less-stigmatized predecessor. Mackay talks about comics in the 2006 abstract I linked, though, so it’d be interesting to see how he’d re-write that chapter nowadays.

  5. 5 Charlatan
    November 25, 2010 at 4:57 am

    I should point out that some of the players in the Glantri campaign (ahem) were not always aware of the Averoigne fiction, and thought that the campaign was a blank slate (well, a fresh-out-of-the-box mythic crypto-France). I had real trouble, for example, visualizing the features of Glantri City for a long time, and did a lot of map and photo browsing before I had a slate of geographical images to cobble a sensible Glantri out of.

  6. 6 Tedankhamen
    November 25, 2010 at 5:38 am

    Amidst the whining for a lost TSR golden age and bemoaning of the death of rpgs, it is nice to hear someone point out that “the OSR is both a product of, and a reaction to, the way that RPGs conquered the world.” The hobby has already done its transformative cultural-creative work, and has in return been co-opted by mass-media entertainment from Dragonlance up to Star Wars. The OSR and the whole homebrew, off the rails approach of using famous IPs as a gaming universe is just a consumer-hobbyists retaking ground lost to merchandisers.

    If you read Roland Barthes, you’ll see that this shared imaginative playground is nothing more than a pantheon or saga of the modern myths (IPs) we are creating.

    Fascinating stuff.

  7. November 27, 2010 at 4:03 am

    A really profound post, Tavis.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2010

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