Capsule Review: Beyond Role and Play

reviewed by John Kim

         This is a book of RPG discussion, subtitled, "tools, toys and theory for harnessing the imagination". The book is 304 pages in a smallish font and it has 28 articles by 26 different people from eight different countries. As one might expect from this, there is a wide variety of material. There's theory, history, analysis of interesting cases of LARPs, some attempts to create tools, and some advocacy for particular styles of play. As part of disclosure, I am one of the authors included in the collection, which may color my view a bit.

         The book is primarily divided into four sections: Theory, Practice, Games, and Openings. Theory is theory about what role-playing is. In principle this is descriptive, creating tools for analyzing role-playing and understanding what it is. Practice is general suggestions for how to design games. This is focussed particularly on LARPs, though many of the principles are broadly applicable. Games is analysis and discussion of particular LARPs from the conventions of previous years. This part is one of those I found most interesting, with analysis of the LARPs "Hamlet", "Panopticorp", and "Mellan himmel och hav" (Between Heaven and Sea). Lastly, Openings is a section for "new paths". It is similar to the Practice section in that it is generally prescriptive methods for LARPs, but it includes articles that are more experimental and/or judgemental. A highlight of this for me was Christopher Sandber's essay "Genesi" where he charts a four-part breakdown of LARP space based on two distinctions: "In-game" vs "Out-game", and "Straight" vs "Circular".

         One of the most important parts of this is that it provides linkage to previous efforts. The first article is an overview of the "first 25 years of Anglo-American role-playing game theory", by Paul Mason. In addition, each article includes a bibiography of its sources which is handy for finding other discussion. Most of the examples and analysis are drawn from Nordic LARPs, but there is a variety of perspectives on the process.

         I would say that the book is a landmark in RPG theory. It is by no means the final word, and indeed the different ideas clash with each other in many ways. It does not form a coherent new picture, but breaks open how to approach the discussion. I look forward eagerly to the books of future years.

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Mon Dec 27 12:29:01 2004