Dice Tales: RPGs as Ritual

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the forty-seventh installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


The Dice Tales series is nearly done, but before I close it out, I want to bring up one thing that may sound a little odd, which is the notion of RPGs as ritual.

I don’t mean “ritual” in the sense that people were scared of back in the ‘80s, when the “Satanic Panic” that swept across America had people convinced that Dungeons and Dragons would inspire teenagers to sacrifice cats and children to some infernal master. Nor, for that matter, do I mean it in the more colloquial sense of a set of rote actions carried out according to a script. I mean it, rather, in a very specific anthropological sense: the one defined by Victor Turner in his work From Ritual to Theatre.

I’m not going to regurgitate the whole thing here; the book is only 122 pages long in the edition I have, so if you’re curious enough to follow up on this, it’s a pretty quick read. (Well, a short one. It’s moderately dense if you’re not used to academic writing — though not bad as such things go.) In fact, you can pretty much just get away with reading the final essay in the book, “Acting in Everyday Life and Everyday Life in Acting.” Turner is concerned with the different kinds of acting, not in the sense of genres or actors’ techniques, but rather the contexts in which we perform and the purposes we perform for. Ritual is one example; theatre is another. He defines the line between them thus:

Ritual, unlike theatre, does not distinguish between audience and performers. Instead, there is a congregation whose leaders may be priests, party officials, or other religious or secular ritual specialists, but all share formally and substantially the same set of beliefs and accept the same system of practices, the same sets of rituals or liturgical actions. A congregation is there to affirm the theological or cosmological order, explicit or implicit, which all hold in common, to actualize it periodically for themselves.

Strip away the religious connotation, and this winds up sounding a lot like an RPG. It’s easier to explain them to outsiders as a kind of improv theatre, but if we take Turner’s definition as fair (and that of Robert Schechner, who said “Theater comes into existence when a separation occurs between audience and performers”), then what gamers do is an not theatre, but an odd kind of ritual. There is no distinction between the audience and the performers in a game; each player is the audience for their fellow participants, while simultaneously carrying out their own performance. Even if some outsider is watching the session, it isn’t being played for their benefit. (If anything, their presence is more likely to be disruptive than the element that completes the performance.) The congregational leaders in this context are the GMs, and the “system of practices” would be the rules of the game. As for the cosmological order being affirmed . . . it’s nothing so grand as what you see in, say, the coronation of a monarch or an Islamic daily prayer, but it’s still there, on multiple levels. A game session affirms not only the IC world of the story, but also a substrate of OOC shared values: the importance of creativity, the value of collaboration, the fairness of gameplay, and more.

Turner’s book, and indeed the entire intellectual tradition it’s part of — performance studies, ludic studies, anthropology as a whole — is concerned with the boundaries or lack thereof between play and not-play, performance and not-performance, social drama occurring in daily life vs. drama deliberately acted out on a stage. Seen in that light, RPGs stop looking like an odd little fringe hobby of no real significance to the world, and start looking like an odd little fringe hobby that actually says quite a lot about the world we live in. They reject the notion that “play” is something only children do and adults should set aside upon growing up. They offer the opportunity to step into a liminal space where the rules of the normal world don’t quite apply: both in the sense that we all agree to behave as if magic was real, and in the sense that we’re allowed to leave behind the realities of our lives and inhabit a different identity for a little while. They offer a cathartic opportunity, the chance to act out impulses you sit on in your daily existence. Play a devil-may-care rogue who leaps in without planning first; get up in that person’s face and scream at them the way you would never do to your boss. Refuse to take anything seriously. Break down and cry. Whatever the story calls for.

Academics who do work that involves other human beings as subjects have to go through a review process to make sure their research is ethical and won’t harm the people involved. One of my friends (a bit ahead of me in grad school and therefore bushwhacking his way through this process before I got to it) had to persuade the overseers of this review process that when he said “role-play,” he didn’t mean the kind of thing where a therapist tells a client, “Pretend I’m your father, and say to me the things you wish you could say to him.” It’s rarely that direct, and lumping RPGs in with that kind of therapeutic method leads to some really dumb ideas about how an RPG study should be conducted . . . but that doesn’t mean there’s no similarity. Any time you ask people to make up a story, any time you ask them to step into that liminal space and start performing, you move into the zone that Turner and his colleagues are talking about. The subtitle of From Ritual to Theatre is “The Human Seriousness of Play,” and the essays in it affirm the notion that play is a very meaningful thing. One that has the power to transform the individual, the group, the whole society they live in.

Which sounds awfully high-falutin’, for something we do for fun. But that, after all, is the point: that fun is an important thing to have.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: RPGs as Ritual — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Dice Tales goes full academic - Swan Tower

  2. I’ve long thought of games (and especially LARPS) as liminal spaces — that’s part of the reason I like to have ritualized openings and closings. Without them, the start and finish can feel very abrupt. But I hadn’t made the jump to thinking about them as ritual in the Turner… Turnerian?… sense.

    • I can’t remember what class I read From Ritual to Theatre for, but as soon as I read those lines they clicked into place alongside my RPG experiences.

  3. Marie, I’m highly interested in what you say here. I joined a group playing 5th edition a few months ago which essentially was arranged on-line through a meetup group. We were all strangers to each other. What is slightly unusual about the group dynamic (and this touches on what you say about the urge to inhabit different identities and leave your quotidian self behind) is that whilst we all get on quite well and nobody has any problem acting out their characters, we still know very little about each other personally! In fact, nobody appears to WANT to know anything about the other members of the group,yet still we look forward to getting together and participating in a self-directed story. There’s something unusual about that and yes, ritualistic. I am not even slightly tempted to tinker with things but group activities like this are not the norm (whatever that might mean)