The Dynamics of Tradition and Folk Groups
in the Role-Playing Game
B. Grantham Aldred
In this article, B. Grantham Aldred explores the multifaceted nature of folk groups through the examination of jokes told as part of a role-playing game. Exploring the way in which various types of humor appeal to the cultural frames of reference of multiple concentric folk identities, this article posits that folk groups exist in both a macro- and micro- condition, based on shared systems of meaning and functioning through performance.
In the popular imagination, tradition is linked with the past. Examining popular media for the traditional brings to mind images of folk dances, indigenous costumes, and musical instruments predating the Renaissance. But traditions exist even in young forms and genres. One such form is the Role-Playing Game. While only possessed of a short history,i there is still a rich set of traditions built up within the genre; the way that these traditions manifest within a group of participants allows an interesting examination of the relationship between folk groups and tradition.
In any examination of tradition, it is necessary to lay out what the term ‘tradition’ means for the sake of the analysis. In this analysis, the term tradition is used to indicate deliberate reference within a folk group to the previously done. Tradition is a relational activity, in which a current action is linked to a previous action or actions, generally by imitation, though sometimes by inversion. However, one aspect of this version of tradition is that the reference must happen within the context of a folk group. Tradition cannot exist without a person to make a reference and a person to receive the reference. By this definition, tradition is primarily a communicative activity. The point of tradition, whether in the form of quilts, or in the form of jokes, is to establish between sender and receiver a common link to the previously done. For the purpose of this understanding, tradition cannot exist without a folk group.
Alan Dundes describes a folk group as “any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor…a member of the group may not know all other members, but he will probably know the common core of traditions belonging to the group, traditions which help the group have a sense of group identity” (7). While Dundes states that traditions are helpful in terms of group identity, it is possible to go further and say that without traditions, group identity does not exist. The reference to the previously done is what enables recognition of mutual membership in a folk group and is thus the thing that brings the folk group into existence. Before a common factor is established, there is no folk group, and since the establishment of common factors cannot be enacted without referring to the previously done, the folk group can only be brought into existence through tradition.
So what does this mean to the Role-Playing Game? Well, within the context of a five-hour session, six people become a folk group with their own traditions and mores. So what does such a young folk group reveal about the nature of tradition and its role in the creation of folklore? In the article “Who are the Folk,” Alan Dundes examines humor traditions within folk groups. By examining jokes within the group involved in a given Role-Playing Game, information about their folk group and its formation can be established and examined, which gives insight into the function of folk groups as a whole.
The Role-Playing Game
Before examining the Role-Playing Game (RPG), it would be best to define it. In the simplest of terms, the RPG is a form of group storytelling. A group of people gets together and constructs a narrative using a set of guidelines. However, this definition does not capture some of the overall complexities of the RPG. More specifically and completely, the RPG is a form of communal performative storytelling based on adjudicated consensus. This definition captures the complexity of the form. The best way to examine this definition is term by term.
The communality of the RPG rests on two underlying concepts. The first is the nature of participant roles. Within the Role-Playing Game, unlike in other forms of performative storytelling, all of the individuals present are both audience and performer. Each individual present is called upon to contribute to the story and is also expected to be attentive to the contributions made by others. This equality among the participants, in which all serve the same generic performative roles, is one of the most communal aspects of the game.
A corollary to this, the second major aspect of the communality, is the nature of the produced narrative as a group product. No individual within the group can claim sole creative credit for the story produced within the game. Since all members contribute to the overall activity, the story belongs to all of them, communally.
Defining the RPG as a performance requires reference to the actual performative events of game sessions. The performative nature of the RPG emerges primarily due to the ephemeral nature of RPG performance. While some persistent cultural artifacts emerge from a given session, there is almost never a written record of a game performance, and the distribution of one would be highly irregular. Instead, the story of the game is recognized as emergent from, and only existing during, the event. The fact that the game only really exists during its performance marks it as performative.
Additionally, the techniques of performance used by the participants define the game as performative. Within the context of the game, participants take on roles that they are expected to enact. Rather than relying on description, participants will perform as if they are portraying the character theatrically, affecting voices and gestures to assist the storytelling. This method of personifying a character links strongly to concepts of affect in performance tying into concepts such as the narrative frame of Gregory Bateson, both creating structure for the performance and providing tools for its interpretation. Therefore, we can see that the act contains a key marker of performativity.
The easiest aspect of the definition to examine is storytelling. An RPG session seeks to construct a series of fictional events that occur within a sequence. This sequence is constructed using narrative tools such as description and dialogue in a way to present a coherent plot. This process of plot construction is important to the RPG, providing a product within the context of performance, a set of narrative goals that allows the comprehension of a session as a larger narrative. Thus, since the Role-Playing Game’s focus is on the construction of a narrative, it is a form of storytelling.
In this definition of the RPG, the terms adjudicated and consensus are strongly linked. It is the system of adjudication that allows the consensus and thus understanding the nature of the adjudication leads to understanding the consensus. Within the game there is a strong potential for disagreement over the direction of the narrative. Many times one participant will want the narrative to progress in one direction while another participant will want it to progress in another direction. Within the context of the game, there is a system to settle such disputes. Through the use of a system of rules and an impartial randomization system, generally dice, narrative splits are resolved, allowing the narrative to take a single direction. This system of adjudication allows the existence of the consensus on which the RPG rests.
Within a game, there is an underlying system of consensus. Through the use of the system of adjudication, all of the participants are able to move towards a common understanding of the events of the narrative being advanced. The function of this consensus is to enable a single narrative thread to emerge from among the contributions. Rather than six different perspectives on what happened attempting to co-exist, the consensus ensures that there is one. This is insignificant and unsubstantial as long as it functions; however, when it breaks down—when the participants have very different ideas of what happened—the narrative is interrupted until the consensus can be re-established. If the consensus cannot be re-established, the game has failed and may simply end without completion of the narrative.
Altogether, these five terms show the most important aspects of understanding the RPG as a form. With this definition made clear, an understanding of how the RPG relates to folk groups and tradition can be revealed.
Examining Alan Dundes’ criteria for folk groups, we find that they consist of four major aspects: 1. The group consists of two or more people; 2. These people share one common factor; 3. These people know the ‘common core’ of traditions; and 4. These people have a sense of identity (Dundes 1980). These criteria, when seen in relation to a given session of a Role-Playing Game, show that the participants, through the events of the game, become a folk group of their own. By the end of a multi-hour session, this group of people shares a common factor, has a ‘common core’ of traditions, and has a sense of identity that links them together. However, this linkage is enabled by the membership of the participants in several additional folk groups, ascending concentrically in size. Not only are they part of the specific game folk group, but of folk groups that ascend all the way to a greater ‘gamer’ folk group.
But how can these various tiers of folk groups be examined? Dundes, in his examination of what constitutes a folk group, uses humor as one analytical tool. Using the joke to understand the way in which a folk group functions works for several important reasons. First, the joke by its nature is traditional. A joke is an act of inversion in which norms are reversed. From the simplest jokes to the most complex, all jokes invert some sort of norm. The pun inverts expectations of language; the shaggy dog story inverts the expectation of narrative resolution; a horse walking into a bar inverts normal expectations of animal behavior. However, what this means is that to make or understand a joke, one must understand the norm against which the joke is inverted. To understand why a horse walking into a bar joke is funny, one must understand the complex dynamics of horse behavior and bar etiquette in relation to societal norms. These norms are established through reference to the previously done, thus fitting the definition of traditions established for this paper.
Second, the joke is linked to group identity. A joke is made to include those who understand into a group of cognoscenti that is ‘in’ on the joke. If one can understand all jokes as ‘in-jokes’ then one can realize that jokes show what it means to be ‘in’ a folk group. So, examining how a folk group jokes shows how the folk group identifies itself and can lead to a better understanding of a given folk group.
In a given RPG session jokes abound, some very specific, some very general. These jokes reinforce the tiered system of folk group identity. For this paper, jokes will be taken from a session of Changeling: the Dreaming. Within this specific game, there are six participants, all of whom are involved in one set of concentric folk groups: the smallest group is the six people in the game; the largest is virtually the entire community of gamers. Different jokes reinforce specific levels of folk group out of this ascending hierarchy. Each specific instance of humor focuses on one of the folk groups and its common core of traditions reinforcing a specific cultural frame of reference.
To access this hierarchy, this paper will examine the four ascending folk groups and the jokes that reinforce the cohesion of each.
Moving from macro- to micro-, most general to most specific, the largest group is ‘Gamers.’ This group refers to the community of individuals who participate in Role-Playing Games anywhere. The identity of this group relies merely on participation in Role-Playing Games in social contexts. Most of the jokes about this group are very auto-critical, in which the participants mock the behavior of the overall group, similar to the way lawyers tell lawyer jokes.
Ryan: catches it kind of looks at it, rolls his eyes a bit as he kind of tucks it in a pocket. Sacagawea or as we call them geek dollars…I’ve got a gold piece!ii
David: geek dollars, oh dear
Shawn: I’ve still got some left from my trip to the Ren Faireiii
Ryan: which was the stupidest thing I ever did. ‘Cause I can carry a 20 dollar bill in my pocket or I can carry 20 quarter size coins and count them out when I want to buy something.
Shawn: in a sack that keeps swinging into your nuts the entire day as you walk around the faire
Ryan: sitting there going 1, 2, 3
Shawn: how much for the dagger sir? 69 dollars kid
Ryan: 4, 5… making little stacks of ten. Yeah it’s embarrassing, it’s stupid. Not that I’ve ever done it, I’ve just heard.
This joke ties into an aspect of Dungeons and Dragons, the Ur-RPG. In Dungeons and Dragons, the major currency is the gold piece. The joke here being that ‘gamers’iv tend to emulate game in regular life, thus carrying gold dollar coins rather than more convenient bills in an effort to be similar to their characters. The interesting comment for the purposes of folk groups comes right at the end, when Ryan ironically claims not to have done this himself. This is auto-critical; Ryan is ironically claiming a geek identity here by referring to tradition in the form of his own errant behavior. By linking the events of the game to what he has done and through that to what other people in this larger folk group have done, he is using traditional behavior to reinforce a folk group in the form of a joke. This joke, tying as it does to one of the basic aspects of Dungeons and Dragons would be comprehensible to all members of the gamer folk group. Its comprehensibility to the participants in the game session shows their overall membership in this macro level folk group.
Another macro level joke that is made involves a reference to a popular comedy sketch by a comedy troupe called The Dead Alewives. This sketch purportedly portrays a game of Dungeons and Dragons and includes a great deal of argument by people with humorous voices. At one point in the game there is a short exchange:
Ryan: you got any Mountain Dew?
Benv: if there are any girls, I want to do them
These lines are a direct excerpt from The Dead Alewives sketch. Both of them are taken directly from the sketch and refer to two things that are referential and partially critical. The original comedy sketch from which these lines come focuses on two aspects of gamer culture. The first line is a humorous reference to the contrast between the fantasy content of the narrative and the mundane context of the performance taking place in the participants’ living room. The second line, which occurs later in the original joke, makes reference to the image of wish-fulfillment within narrative, portraying participants in Role-Playing Games as using the game as an environment to play out an imaginary interpersonal contact.
This criticism of gamer social forms and practices, yet identification with the same forms and practices, exists in most gamer humor. Interestingly, these patterns of humor are common to the broader gamer community. The Dead Alewives sketch mentioned here has been referenced and sampled extensively on the internet, which in turn makes specific allusion to similar games for computers and to gamer based webcomics. Interestingly enough, these jokes would be comprehensible to anyone who knew the mores of the Gamers folk group. This is the macro-folk group in this situation. It consists of hundreds of thousands of people and is quite impersonal in its interactions. As the folk groups get smaller, the jokes change and become more personal.
The next tier of folk group will be referred to as ‘Changeling-gamers.’ This group is much smaller than Tier 1. All Changeling-gamers are gamers, but not all gamers are Changeling-gamers. Role-Playing Games are published in various series, which outline consensual realities in which games take place as well as systems for adjudication to use within the game. The group of Changeling-gamers is limited to participants in one specific game series, titled Changeling: the Dreaming. This game provides for a specific folk group in terms of frame of reference. Gamers who take part in a specific RPG learn a common language and metaphysics that can be used to communicate things both about the game and outside the game. This language is used in jokes to reinforce identity, again partially auto-critical. This exchange uses one term, Kiasyd, to make a joke about a certain type of Changeling-gamer. The term Kiasyd, within the context of Changeling: the Dreaming, refers to a type of vampire from a game that takes place in the same universe as Changeling, and within the consensual reality sometimes interacts with the characters in the Changeling game world. For instance:
Kate: Can I play a Kiasyd?
Ryan: Sure, you better have a back-up character though
Kate: I’ll bring lots of sunblock
Kiasyd do not, as vampires, deal well with daylight and tend not to work well as characters in a game. Thus the joke is that the gamer would be foolish to play a Kiasyd because the game will likely take place in the daytime. This joke would only be comprehensible to Changeling-gamers because it references the specific aspects of the rules system used to play the game and reinforces the specific mores and cultural forms of this tier of shared culture. This is a reinforcement of the consensus aspect of the RPG, outlining the rules of the world through joking reference, helping the performative process.
Similar to the macro-level gamer humor, this also includes a sort of auto-critique. The idea that Changeling-gamers, a group that both Kate and Ryan are including themselves in, would make foolish requests such as this is a form of self-criticism. They are pointing out the foolishness of part of their own folk group in a way that simultaneously reinforces their own ties to said group.
Not all Changeling-gamer humor is auto-critical though. Some humor uses specific game universe language to convey a normal humorous premise. One example uses game language to enhance toilet humor.
Ryan: you guys feel a little cloud of glamour almost suffusing him
Shawn: excuse me
Tony: good one man, heh
This exchange is based on one of the base game mechanics. Changelings are able to affect the world around them using glamour. The suffusion of glamour thus indicates that he is surrounded by magic. However, Shawn turns this cloud of glamour into a flatulence joke. This is a use of game language to create game specific humor. Thus it would be understood fully by Changeling-gamers but not by all gamers.
Tier 3—Embracing the Muse
The third tier gets much more specific. The group that played in this specific game was part of a group within Bloomington, Indiana called Embracing the Muse (EtM). This group, consisting of about 100 people, participated in another set of games and formed a larger social group that all of these participants take part in. This game, and this social group, serve as the third tier of folk group, and are well represented in the jokes within the game session. One comes from the planning session before the game.
Kate: I was going to say…more fucking redemption stories…we get enough of that in David’s game.
Ryan: okay, the theme of this game is the orcs are attacking caravans outside of town
Kate: are these Geoffrey Kerevans?
Tony: wow. Can we eject her for that comment? That was pretty bad.
While this joke makes reference to Dungeons and Dragons, and thus has some reference to the first tier gamers, the prime joke is actually a pun based on the name of a supporting character from EtM. Geoffrey Kerevan, whose last name is pronounced like caravan, is a villain in EtM and his name would be recognizable to all EtM players. So, this joke reinforces the ‘in’ nature of each of the players. Because they understand this specific reference, their identity as members of this folk group is reinforced.
Other Tier 3 jokes follow a similar pattern, making reference to aspects of the EtM game in a way that reinforces the fact that the participants can knowingly acknowledge. However, one of the interesting characteristics of this humor involves the corollary increase between folk group specificity and humorous context. For instance, there is one joke that requires quite a bit of contextual explanation for it to make sense.
Ben: I’m going to stop whipping on vampire Spanish elves and go help my friends
Kate: communist Spanish elves
The joke is Kate’s line and the humor requires much explanation to a non-member of the EtM-gamers group. At the point in the game where this happened, the characters were fighting a group of undead elves that were dressed like knights templar. David had earlier made the comment that they were “left over from the Spanish Inquisition” so Ben referred to them as “vampire Spanish elves.” Kate’s comment “communist Spanish elves” is an adaptation of an element from EtM. In the Embracing the Muse game, a group of Russian sidhe, who are similar in appearance to Dungeons and Dragons elves, acquired the nickname ‘Communist Spider Elves’ through a complicated series of references to Russian history, comic book culture, and gamer specific allusions. Kate’s comment, substituting Spanish for Spider based on context and assonance, is a reference that only participants in EtM would understand without extensive explanation. Thus, as the jokes move closer to the micro-level in terms of the traditions they reference, they become much more context-driven and specific and require deep insider knowledge to understand.
Tier 4-Ryan’s group
The final tier is the micro-level. This is Ryan’s group,vi the six people who participated in the specific game session. This folk group, formed during the course of the game, and their traditions were only a few hours if not minutes old when they were referenced. What is interesting is that the jokes in these situations are very context specific and often fit within the performance of the game. For instance, there is a humorous exchange involving the acquisition of tickets at a local arcade and the fact that Ben’s character had a bad stutter. Statements in italics are keyed within the performance as character speech
David: there was one day when the machine broke and just started spitting out we’re like, and send someone over to distract him. And you (pointing to Ben) were like uhhhhh.
Shawn: so how’s the weather.
Ben: you probably actually sent me there to tell him that it was broken.
David: (stuttering) the.
Tony: we told you to go tell him and that it was really really important
Shawn: (fakes stutter).
Ryan: Come on, kid. Spit it out. Come on, what! Say it! Say it!
Tony: come on, keep working, he’s starting to figure it out.
This exchange occurred as part of constructing the universe of the game, and in doing so reinforced the folk group between the participants using tradition. By referencing the arcade, one decided aspect of the game, and Ben’s character’s stutter, another established aspect of the game, the participants were making deliberate reference to the previously done, thus using tradition to make jokes within the folk group. What is interesting is that this exchange happens less than an hour into the game. The traditions being referenced are incredibly young, by the standards of traditions, but demonstrate the way in which reference to the group’s understanding of its performative context helps to establish a group identity.
This pattern is borne out in other jokes within the session. They tend to make reference to the already done within the game performance in an effort to both move forward the performance and to create humor. Here is an example from later in the game,
Shawn: I don’t think there’s much room for him to stand between you and the cars
Ryan: the flow of traffic…
Tony: that way y’ know, the cars’ll just dent on you but they’d kill me.
David: it’s just like a big skeeball
Tony: yeah. But I wouldn’t actually try to be hit by one of these.
Ben: I’ll step out into the middle of the road
Tony: no, no, no
This moment makes deliberate reference to a joke earlier in the game. Part of the backstory of the game is that the characters hang out at a somewhat uncanny arcade. One of the odd things about this arcade is that the skeeball machine spits balls back out at the user if they miss. Ben’s character, being a very large troll and somewhat stupid, regularly gets hit in the head with skeeballs and the group has made a game of it. Thus his idiotic stepping into traffic, done tongue in cheek, is a reference to earlier humor that is part of the game. However, this is very close to the level of performance. The humorous aspects are part of the overall structure of the story.
This final observation gives an interesting insight into use of traditional references as jokes within folk groups. As the intended audience for which the reference is made becomes smaller, the jokes become more contextual and more related to the specifics of the social situation and folk group. The Tier 1 jokes, ones that any player of a Role-Playing Game would understand, are almost entirely unrelated to the events occurring in the social context. The Tier 4 jokes, ones that only the people in the context would understand, are almost entirely directly related to the events occurring in the performance. This move from macro to micro gives an interesting understanding of how different folk groups can manifest at the same time and use tradition to reinforce identity.
This study is not to suggest that these were the only folk groups to which these people belonged. Indeed they each belonged to other Tier 2 gaming folk groups. What should instead be understood is the way in which folk groups exist and function. In a given context, multiple folk groups manifest through traditional actions. These actions occur one after another, sometimes in quick succession. It is through these actions that the folk group can be understood.
These examinations show clear parallels to the concept of communitas by Victor Turner. Through a ritual process of performance, cultural roles and situations are created and reinforced, and individuals are brought into relationship with each other. What is most distinct about this process is the way in which this negotiation not only establishes the relation of the individuals to each other but ties to the way in the individuals interact with folk groups of varying levels.
The folk process contained within is a holistic approach to the folk group. Instead of approaching the folk group as a single entity, this study demonstrates the way in which folk groups are created and negotiated through performative acts of social linkage. By performing jokes that reference the various tiers of cultural identity possessed by the members of the group, the members show their relationship to the common core of traditions that is the folk group.
Instead of viewing the folk group as a pre-existing condition of culture, this study shows the way in which the folk group is produced and re-produced by cultural practices. Within the span of five hours, a group of people can construct a set of social relations constituting themselves as a micro-level folk group through consensus establishment while simultaneously negotiating their relationship with a macro-level folk group through auto-critique. Understanding the dynamics of this process can help reveal the overall relationship between folklore and culture.
Dundes, Alan. 1980. “Who are the Folk?” in Interpreting Folklore. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Lemke, Ian. 1998. Changeling: The Dreaming. Atlanta, GA: White Wolf Game Studio.
Singer, Milton. 1972. When a great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Indian Civilization. New York: Praeger.
Turner, Victor. 1982. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: PAJ Publications.
i The first Role-Playing Game was Dungeons and Dragons, first published in 1974. Rick Swan’s thorough, though dated book The Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games (1990, St, Martin’s Press) provides a good overview of the state of the hobby 16 years in.
ii For this last part, Ryan adopted a breathy voice with a pronounced lisp. Participants adopted this voice often when making jokes about the larger community of gamers.
iii The term Ren Faire is short for Renaissance Faire, an American festival of historical and geographical pastiche which deals with European history.
iv I will use this term without quotes to refer to people who play Role-Playing Games. It is an emic term.
v Note, the Ben here is not the author.
vi So named because Ryan was the individual serving as Game-Master, a position of authority in gaming.
B. Grantham Aldred is a PhD candidate in Folklore and American Studies focused on discursive American character in folkloric performances for tourists in Salem, MA. He works more generally on new media, film, gender, identity and bodylore.