What are role playing games like?

A few days ago a friend of mine who doesn’t play tabletop RPGs asked me where to find written campaign reports (in Italian). A few questions later, I found out that he was looking for “descriptions” of gaming sessions – “you know, as if you were there”.

Campaign chronicles are as old as the hobby itself, and not that hard to find on the Internet. The Rythlondar campaign chronicles [1] are an excellent example straight from 1976. Campaign chronicles are usually written post hoc, with the purpose of documenting and recording the fictional events that occurred in the game.  You don’t have to search very hard to find several examples in Italian [2,3]. I have no idea why I’m talking about Italian stuff in a post in English, but… yeah, there it is.

Campaign chronicles don’t typically aim to convey the authentic “as-if-you-were-there” tabletop feel, as they may be edited or fictionalised to some degree. In fact, true session logs aren’t that common. The thing that comes closest to what my friend had in mind are the so-called”replays” [4].  Replays are very popular in Japan, but almost unheard of in the West. They are quite literally full transcripts of actual gaming sessions, even though they may be edited and re-written in order to make them more entertaining. When I say transcripts, I really mean it: in the typical replay you can read the actual lines of dialogue between GM and players, including table banter! As far as I understand, the main purpose of replays is entertainment, but they might also have an “educational” purpose (i.e. showcasing how a rpg works, which might be useful for beginners). R’lyeh Antique [5] is the only replay translated in English that I’m aware of. Replays are considerably popular in Japan, and some of them gave rise to multimedia franchises (like Record of Lodoss War [6]). An example of a Japanese-style replay originally written in English is The Broken Window ([7], Golden Sky Stories).

Actual Plays (AP) are somewhat similar to replays, and at the same time completely different. They were originally popularised on the forum The Forge [8] as written recaps of gaming sessions- but, unlike replays, they weren’t meant for entertainment, and they weren’t literal transcripts (usually). They were mostly meant as a self-reflection tool for players [9]. Basically you reconstructed the session after the game, dissecting and analysing it in order to better understand what worked, what didn’t, what could have been done differently, which rules were applied incorrectly…  In other words, an autopsy. APs were about game sessions that actually occurred, and included references to rules and possibly even to the surrounding social context, rather than conjectures or speculations about potential or imagined games – this is the reason why they were especially important as a self-reflection tool. Note, however, that APs weren’t necessarily detailed recaps of entire campaigns or entire game sessions. They could be “brief or long, detailed or sketchy“; and they could be “about the game as a whole across ten years of play, or about five isolated minutes of play“. The practice somewhat gained ground here in Italy, under several names (e.g. “Gioco concreto”, [10]), but there aren’t many examples outside of the communities dedicated to indie games.

More recently, the term Actual Play has been used to refer to a different phenomenon, closer to Japan’s replays than to The Forge’s “original” APs. Namely, in the last few years a lot of “actual play” videos or podcasts have been popping up all over the internet; these videos/podcasts consists of plain recording of gaming sessions. They are similar in scope to replays, in that they are meant mainly for entertainment. The main difference lies in the fact that they are recordings rather than transcripts. Some, like Wil Wheaton’s Titansgrave [11], or How We Roll’s podcasts [12], are more or less heavily edited and produced (HowWeRoll’s Call of Cthulhu scenarios are particularly impressive in that regard: they’re almost like a radio drama [13]). A simple search on google turns up a lot of these actual play videos and podcasts.

When it comes to actual play videos/podcasts, the Italian scene is not as rich and varied as the English one. DiceGames Italia [14] is the most active youtube channel, while Fumble [15] and GDR Unplugged [16] seem the most active audio podcast. Everything else consists of unreliable/irregular podcasts and channels.

Play-by-forum/play-by-post games are a totally different beast, but they might still be relevant for someone looking for written reports of gaming sessions reasonably close to the live experience. PbF/PbP are roleplaying games played on forums instead of face to face, so the interaction happens mainly via text. They are similar to the live experience up to a certain point. Since on a PbF everything is slower, the dynamics involved in the game tend to be a bit different – it’s more like collaborative storytelling. There are several variants (e.g. play-by-chat, play-by-email) but they are more or less the same thing – the main thing that changes is the medium. They are relatively easy to find, even in Italian [17].


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