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Roleplaying Games as Oral Tradition

It seems to me no coincidence that the roleplaying game was "invented" in the early '70s, at a time when the folk revival was going strong, and had been for quite some time.13 Roleplaying games are, in many ways, storytelling. And storytelling is something that has been all but lost to our society as a formalized activity. Some even claim that RPGs evolved directly out of group storytelling and the like.14 Whether or not this is the case, I would claim that RPGs are the spiritual, if not literal, descendants of the oral tradition.

In many ways, the idea of formal storytelling has been transformed, and some of the elements lost, by modern society. The most common forms of "storytelling" today are TV and film, with one storyteller able to spread the same story to thousands or even millions of listeners. But in the process, some of the crucial components that differentiate the oral tradition from modern literature have been lost. No longer is the storyteller faced with her audience, able to adjust the story to cater to their every whim. No longer is the story passed along, retold in ever-changing versions by an endless chain of people. Instead, we have carefully-crafted stories where all of adjusting happens before most people ever see them, and where one version of the story is authoritative and "correct." Except for an elite few, those behind and in front of the camera, the power to shape the stories of our society has been lost.15

Roleplaying games reverse that trend. Where traditional storytelling involves a storyteller crafting a story, tweaking it in response to audience responses, RPGs directly involve the "audience," giving them direct control over the central characters of the story. Where traditional storytelling is usually just a process of varying and recombining already-known stories, RPGs involve the crafting of new stories. And where traditional storytelling always produces the result the storyteller intends, RPGs create stories that are unknown to even the participants until they have been told. RPGs provide a creative outlet much like formalized storytelling, only moreso. In nearly every way, RPGs meet the goals of storytelling, and surpass them.


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