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Author Topic: Revision and interpretation in role-playing  (Read 4097 times)
Matt Snyder
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« on: December 03, 2004, 08:04:37 AM »

This is in reply to Chris Lehrich's excellent post in A wild and an untamed thing - how literature refuses gaming:
Quote from: Chris Lehrich
Interpretation and revision are not the same animal, Matt. After I've interpreted a text, it remains itself, autonomous. What changes is the discourse about the text, which in turn may alter the way people read the text, and so forth. But the text itself remains the text itself. And one of the points I think Harrison wants to stress is that that peculiar autonomy of the text is heavily rooted in the written word, which is especially alienated from what we usually like to think of as the "real" or experiential. This is why he thinks that fantasy has to get over its current tendency toward literalism and celebrate its own potential wildness. A text cannot really be colonized, because all you can do is write around it; you cannot rewrite the text once it has been written.


Revision in gaming:

Player 1: "I take the gold ring from the young girl."
GM: "Ok, that works. She cries, and you leave. You're eating breakfast the next morning, when ... "
Player 3: "No, wait, man, don't do it that way. Instead, let's say she hid the necklace in her pocket.
GM: "Ok, sure, that ok with you Player 1."
Player 1: "Yeah, actually that's much cooler! Let's do it that way. Ok, so my guy takes the candy instead."

Interpretation in gaming:

Player 1: "I think my character was an ass for taking that ring."
GM: "Well, he tried. But, remember, we said he didn't find it?"
Player 1: "Did we? Oh, ok. I think my character's still a jerk, and that's so fun to play!"
GM: "Yeah! Isn't he a jerk! It's so fun to be 'evil.' Ha ha."

Years later ...

Player 1: "Guys, remember when we played Game X and I took that gold ring from that girl? She was so upset. It really made me think about greed in a new way -- I like to think, looking back, that my character had good reasons for it. But, I don't think I can play a character like that anymore."
GM: "But that's not what happened, remember? You never took it."
Player 1: "Still, it makes me think of greed that way. Our gaming really does get interesting."
GM: "Yeah. I used to think your character was a jerk, but now that I have a kid, I don't think so, really. He needed to do that. I understand him better, too."

In this we may have to simply disagree, Chris. Text remains fixed. The actual, temporal events of a game session remain fixed. And, yet, our memory of them, or response to them, how we play the same game even in the next session, changes as our interpretation, memory, and out-right coscious revisions of in-game events changes much in the same way we interpret and discuss a fixed text. I agree with Harrison about the trend toward literalism in fantasy fiction, and even perhaps in gaming circles.

You cannot redo Actual Play once it has been done by the group. I think the comparison (inexact, as I stated) is there, Chris. This phenomenon is not unique to fiction.

Finally, Chris, we do agree that RPGs cannot produce literary fantasy. I've never said they could. But, I do think they can produce XXXX fantasy, where XXXX is whatever word that applies to RPGs, and has the same moral weight and value as "literary." So, again, this thread is getting hung up on words, not meaning or intent.

Long story short -- Chris, I get why and how you are defending literature and it's particular form. However, I find so many meaninful analogies between that and the potential of role-playing, that I think we can't help but compare them and benefit from doing so. Your warings about their differences should temper the discussion. But, I don't think we can just throw comparisons literature out the window because they just aren't the same. They aren't the same, but they're damn close. We just have to remember the differences, and we're all sharp enough to do that, I think.
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Matt Snyder
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clehrich
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« Reply #1 on: December 03, 2004, 08:44:49 AM »

Quote from: Matt Snyder
Revision in gaming:

Player 1: "I take the gold ring from the young girl."
GM: "Ok, that works. She cries, and you leave. You're eating breakfast the next morning, when ... "
Player 3: "No, wait, man, don't do it that way. Instead, let's say she hid the necklace in her pocket.
GM: "Ok, sure, that ok with you Player 1."
Player 1: "Yeah, actually that's much cooler! Let's do it that way. Ok, so my guy takes the candy instead."

....

Years later ...

Player 1: "Guys, remember when we played Game X and I took that gold ring from that girl? She was so upset. It really made me think about greed in a new way -- I like to think, looking back, that my character had good reasons for it. But, I don't think I can play a character like that anymore."
GM: "But that's not what happened, remember? You never took it."
Player 1: "Still, it makes me think of greed that way. Our gaming really does get interesting."
GM: "Yeah. I used to think your character was a jerk, but now that I have a kid, I don't think so, really. He needed to do that. I understand him better, too."
I've repeated these two parts of the example (I have no problem with the interpretation in gaming thing -- as I say, that's of course necessary with anything) because they bear very close examination.

I do see your point.  To use your phrase, I just want to "temper the discussion" a bit.

What is the text here?  Is it the "final" product, the statement, "my guy takes the candy"?  If so, the later interpretation by Player 1 is incoherent: what he refers to never happened, is not in the text at all.  So is the text the complete transcript?  In that case, no revision has occurred.

Something is happening here, but I maintain that it isn't revision.
Quote
Text remains fixed. The actual, temporal events of a game session remain fixed. And, yet, our memory of them, or response to them, how we play the same game even in the next session, changes as our interpretation, memory, and out-right coscious revisions of in-game events changes much in the same way we interpret and discuss a fixed text. ... You cannot redo Actual Play once it has been done by the group. I think the comparison (inexact, as I stated) is there, Chris. This phenomenon is not unique to fiction.
I agree that there is a comparison here, and I think that it's an important one.  But I also think that the desire to read this as revision stems from a desire to understand what we do in gaming as producing literature-like texts.  I think this is a category mistake and an impediment to the development of our art.
Quote
I do think [RPGs] can produce XXXX fantasy, where XXXX is whatever word that applies to RPGs, and has the same moral weight and value as "literary."
I have no objection to this whatever.  None.  I don't know what "moral" weight attaches to "literary," but whatever that is there is no intrinsic reason RPGs cannot accopmplish it.  At the same time, I see no reason to think that this can be accomplished through literary means, and I think there is a lot of desire to make that so.  It can't be done; the mediums are too different.  We must seek other means.
Quote
Long story short -- Chris, I get why and how you are defending literature and it's particular form. However, I find so many meaninful analogies between that and the potential of role-playing, that I think we can't help but compare them and benefit from doing so. Your warnings about their differences should temper the discussion. But, I don't think we can just throw comparisons literature out the window because they just aren't the same. They aren't the same, but they're damn close. We just have to remember the differences, and we're all sharp enough to do that, I think.
I'm not defending literature, Matt.  I'm in fact trying to defend RPGs against the steady creep of what we might call "literary-ism."  Of course we have to compare them, but such comparison should aim to reveal what is different about RPGs in order to capitalize on those qualities.  Otherwise we end up with bad imitation.  My argument is that they aren't the same, and they're really not all that close at all.  What similarities there are should be instructive and illuminating, but the abyss that divides the two art forms needs to be recognized -- and it is not.
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Chris Lehrich
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« Reply #2 on: December 03, 2004, 09:04:08 AM »

Quote from: clehrich
Something is happening here, but I maintain that it isn't revision.

It's still under the "Interpretation" heading... does it make sense to you as interpretation of the text (assuming, as you point out, that this implies the text includes both pre- and post-revision)?
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #3 on: December 03, 2004, 09:15:18 AM »

Chris, what is revision? My example may be poorly constructed, and incoherent as you say. Given a coherent sample, how is it not revision?

I understand revision to mean a writer changing, altering or deleting his text after having writing some existing version. Can we not do exactly the same thing in play? Can't we perform play, not like the results, then "go back" and change that play?

EDIT: I suspect you may have a more considered definition, having studied text more intently that I have. That's cool. Maybe that's the crux of the problem -- that I'm operating from a fuzzy definition.

If you don't want to term that "revision," fine. I fail to see, though, how it is so significantly different from revising one's writing that we'd quibble over the term. Your concern is that we will make an error in trying to make role-playing like fiction. Ok, understood and relevant. But, I dont' have another word for it. Sorry. I'm sticking with revision until something better come along, and I'm open to suggestions.

Re: Defending RPGs. Right, Chris, agreed -- we need to find what is unique about role-playing and not let go of it, especially when we compare it to other forms.

Wow, you ARE an academic, aren't you? To the LETTER! I mean that in good spirit, not as an insult. You keep us on out toes in demanding such absolutely fine language and terminology, and we discuss a lot about terminology ... but our intent and meaning is, to me, indistinguishable. I think you may be cutting things too fine on some issues. Which is to say, I see us as agreeing on damn near everything.
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Matt Snyder
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #4 on: December 03, 2004, 09:17:10 AM »

Chris, I'd love to hear more about this abyss you refer to. How are we not acknowledging it? What is it? Where do you foresee it leading? How can we better acknowlege it?

I'm of the opinion that it's less of an abyss and more of pot-hole. But, it seems you've given it more thought than I, which is likely!
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Matt Snyder
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daMoose_Neo
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« Reply #5 on: December 03, 2004, 09:31:01 AM »

Revisions aren't always intentional.
Muddled memory leads to Player A going to GenCon and telling this story of awesome play where he had this jerk of a character who stole this little girl's ring.
Thats not what happened, the events have been revised in the player's mind, and is now shared by the three groups of people Player A told.
On the other hand, some revisions are intentional. I've played in a group where we had play sessions and went ahead and revised them later to better fit what we were doing at the time. Weird, but the GM started off on a weird foot, so there were around 2 or so sessions where he said "Look, that doesn't flow with where we're taking it now...". The events happened, yes, but the GM undid them officially at a later date...revision.

This is partly where I was bringing up the Storytelling in the other thread. For example, the Arthurian legends have been 'revised' throughout history. The French editions were among the first in print and contained the addition of Lancelot du Lake. Just because it was in print though doesn't make it 'true', cannon or absolute: other forms of the legends still exist, many of which contridict one another. At this point, the French versions are among the most widely known and  thus Lancelot is accepted as a part of the myth.

No, we don't produce literature through play. What I'd say we do create, what the "product" is, are low level, localized, personal 'myths'. Myths are pretty much the basis for much of fantasy literature to one degree or another. Our myths are revised by ourselves as time goes on, either purposely as in my GM who altered the myth to continue the story in a more meaningful way or as in Player A who simply didn't realize he took the candy, not the ring.
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John Kim
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« Reply #6 on: December 03, 2004, 09:49:39 AM »

Quote from: clehrich
I'm in fact trying to defend RPGs against the steady creep of what we might call "literary-ism."  Of course we have to compare them, but such comparison should aim to reveal what is different about RPGs in order to capitalize on those qualities.  Otherwise we end up with bad imitation.  My argument is that they aren't the same, and they're really not all that close at all.  What similarities there are should be instructive and illuminating, but the abyss that divides the two art forms needs to be recognized -- and it is not.

Just a moment.  Chris, what are you thinking of as "literary-ism"?  

From my point of view,  "literature" refers to a body of written works.  Tabletop role-playing is not literature for a very simple reason -- it is oral rather than written.   However, play-by-mail or play-by-email role-playing is literary.  Would you agree with that?  By this idea, different systems and techniques should be developed for such roleplaying.  cf. "Code of Unaris" and "De Profundis" as literary RPG systems.  

On the other hand, there are those who will claim that certain artistic merit (which varies wildly from person to person) is necessary to be literature.  i.e. They will claim that H. Rider Haggard, say, is not literature but James Joyce is.  This is a very different issue than the question of medium.  I have no particular respect for this idea.
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clehrich
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« Reply #7 on: December 03, 2004, 10:30:49 AM »

Quote from: Matt Snyder
Chris, what is revision? My example may be poorly constructed, and incoherent as you say. Given a coherent sample, how is it not revision?
Whoa, Nellie!  I didn't say you were incoherent.  And your examples are very good -- they hit the nail on the head.  I said that if we read "the text" as meaning the final product of what "really happened" in terms of the events of the game, then Player 1 is incoherent: he's commented on an event that is simply not there.  It's as though I said, "Hey, you remember that part in LOTR where Frodo got eaten by the Balrog?"  And you say, "Um, no, Chris.  Are you on the mushrooms again?"  What I'm saying here makes no sense whatever.  From the fact that the player can say this, as in the example, and have it interpreted as something other than a hallucination, I assert that "the text" here would be the entire transcript.

And since the entire transcript has not had anything removed, as we know because Player 1 does not have to be on drugs, revision in the literary sense has not occurred.
Quote
I suspect you may have a more considered definition, having studied text more intently that I have. That's cool. Maybe that's the crux of the problem -- that I'm operating from a fuzzy definition.
No, I don't think it's all that technical a definition.  Let's say you sit down and compose a nice long rant about why Chris Lehrich is an idiot, to post on the Forge.  You write it up, and read it.  Then you think, "You know, Ron's going to eat me alive if I post this -- it's a flame."  So now you go and revise.  What gets posted isn't a flame, but it was the first time.  Now if I respond to this by saying, "Matt, you dick, how could you flame me?  Ron! Kill him!" I'm being a jerk and misreading, or rather inventing.

If on the other hand you post the thing as first written, and Ron does come down on you, and you post an apology and say, "Okay, here's what I meant," you haven't revised.  You've posted another text.  It's certainly the proper thing for me to pretend I didn't read the first post, and Ron should kick my ass if I don't do this, but in fact the text is there.

Does that clarify it?  (Note that the example is not intended to reflect anything -- I don't read you as flaming me, nor this conversation as antagonistic, or anything like that.)
Quote
If you don't want to term that "revision," fine. I fail to see, though, how it is so significantly different from revising one's writing that we'd quibble over the term. Your concern is that we will make an error in trying to make role-playing like fiction. Ok, understood and relevant. But, I dont' have another word for it. Sorry. I'm sticking with revision until something better come along, and I'm open to suggestions.
Yes, well, that's the kicker, isn't it?  I think we can use "revision," unless somebody can think of something better -- "rectification" perhaps? -- but we have to be very careful about how we use it so as not to slip.
Quote
Wow, you ARE an academic, aren't you? To the LETTER! I mean that in good spirit, not as an insult. You keep us on out toes in demanding such absolutely fine language and terminology, and we discuss a lot about terminology ... but our intent and meaning is, to me, indistinguishable. I think you may be cutting things too fine on some issues. Which is to say, I see us as agreeing on damn near everything.
Academic through and through.  I do think the intent and meaning is a little different, though.  I agree that it's a fine point, but from the original thread where we were talking about literature and RPGs as distinct, I think it's an important point.  In most cases it probably isn't.
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Chris Lehrich
clehrich
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« Reply #8 on: December 03, 2004, 10:36:17 AM »

Quote from: daMoose_Neo
Revisions aren't always intentional. ...
I'd agree, Nate, but only the peculiar situation of RPGs makes this the case.  In literary revision, the audience wouldn't even know about the other versions of the story.  In RPGs, we are author and audience/reader, which puts us in a peculiar relation to the text that is radically unlike what happens with literature.  That's what I'm trying to get at: the ways in which these things are not the same.
Quote
This is partly where I was bringing up the Storytelling in the other thread. For example, the Arthurian legends have been 'revised' throughout history. The French editions were among the first in print and contained the addition of Lancelot du Lake. Just because it was in print though doesn't make it 'true', cannon or absolute: other forms of the legends still exist, many of which contridict one another. At this point, the French versions are among the most widely known and  thus Lancelot is accepted as a part of the myth.
Erm, yes.  But myths aren't textual, at base.  I've said something about this at the end of the post I just made on a new thread, but this is something I'm working on quite intensively now and it'll be a bit before I get that all clearly written up.

Basically myth and literary text have importantly distinct qualities and characteristics, some of them quite a bit like the distinctions between RPGs and literary text.  I agree with you that RPGs are more like myth than they are like literature, but I really need to think through the intricacies and implications of that before I go whole hog on it.
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Chris Lehrich
clehrich
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« Reply #9 on: December 03, 2004, 10:40:49 AM »

Quote from: John Kim
From my point of view,  "literature" refers to a body of written works.  Tabletop role-playing is not literature for a very simple reason -- it is oral rather than written.   However, play-by-mail or play-by-email role-playing is literary.  Would you agree with that?  By this idea, different systems and techniques should be developed for such roleplaying.  cf. "Code of Unaris" and "De Profundis" as literary RPG systems.
The issue of PBM and PBE-M gaming is a very complicated one.  There is clearly a literary element here, yet it retains a conversational structure.  I do think that this dimension should be explored a lot, and I'm interested to see this happening.  I'm not in any way prepared to comment on the implications, though.  I just haven't thought about it enough.
Quote
On the other hand, there are those who will claim that certain artistic merit (which varies wildly from person to person) is necessary to be literature.  i.e. They will claim that H. Rider Haggard, say, is not literature but James Joyce is.  This is a very different issue than the question of medium.  I have no particular respect for this idea.
Neither do I.  I do think it's unfortunate that some discourse on gaming seems to fall into this sort of thing by grading gameplay in terms of literary aesthetic criteria, since this is bound to generate the claim that all gameplay is intrinsically bad literature.  From that point of view, of course it's bad: it isn't literature at all.  But no, I didn't mean a question of artistic merit; I mean the specific qualities of a textual production as opposed to an oral one, with all the vast complexities that this entails.
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Chris Lehrich
Matt Snyder
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« Reply #10 on: December 03, 2004, 10:47:15 AM »

Quote
And since the entire transcript has not had anything removed, as we know because Player 1 does not have to be on drugs, revision in the literary sense has not occurred.


Ah, there's the quibble. I do not view the transcipt as the equivalent of text at all, and I'm not especially interested in transcripts of actual play. Too often, if not always, the are not the "thing." This makes them different than text, yes. Taht's fine. I still see revision, though. Here's how:

I view the shared imaginary space, and the events in it, the "text." (That is, the thing most like text, in the sense that it is the thing produced.) So, we can absolutely revise that space, hence it's similar to revising what one writes.

Consider, a writer may have volumes of notes on his novel. Are they the text? I think they are not (while possibly interesting.) I think transcripts might be similar, but not exactly. That is, to enjoy "the story"  of actual play, I don't really have to care or remember about Mary changing her character's name after the first session. That, to me, is revision. I'll stick with the new name for posterity. The old one is an anecdote. The transcipt of play would detail Mary talking to us about changing her character's name. I couldn't care less (sure, other times I might, given more important changes).

So, there's why I'm using revision, and am comfortable in doing so. Making sense? I do indeed get what you're saying -- yes, we cannot revise the transcript. But, that's not the thing I'm after.
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Matt Snyder
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clehrich
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« Reply #11 on: December 03, 2004, 11:19:33 AM »

Quote from: Matt Snyder
I view the shared imaginary space, and the events in it, [as] the "text." (That is, the thing most like text, in the sense that it is the thing produced.) So, we can absolutely revise that space, hence it's similar to revising what one writes.

Consider, a writer may have volumes of notes on his novel. Are they the text? I think they are not (while possibly interesting.) I think transcripts might be similar, but not exactly. That is, to enjoy "the story"  of actual play, I don't really have to care or remember about Mary changing her character's name after the first session. That, to me, is revision. I'll stick with the new name for posterity. The old one is an anecdote. The transcipt of play would detail Mary talking to us about changing her character's name. I couldn't care less (sure, other times I might, given more important changes).
But these two cases aren't comparable.  See, the players of a game are the audience as well as the authors.  If "the text" is only the material that is in the "final cut" as it were, then if someone refers to Mary's character by his original name later on, that is incoherent and bizarre.  How would I know what that original name was?  Because I was there, I was the audience when the name was different.  Your second interpretation example (years later) shows this pretty clearly.  Certainly as you say to enjoy "the story" later on, I do not have to include everything that went into constructing it.  But the totality of the game is not the same as what finally resulted from it.  This is not true of a literary text: what finally resulted is all you have, standing autonomous.

I know it's a fine distinction, but do you see what I'm getting at?  The process of constructing the final story is not accessible when dealing with a literary text, where it is in RPGs.  Under some circumstances, probably most, we don't care much about this after the fact: we think of "the game" as being the final version.  But your example demonstrates the possibility of thinking about it differently under other circumstances.  That is, RPGs are intrinsically processual, and if we choose not to regard them so after the fact that is a choice.  Literary texts are not processual; they are fixed objects, and we have no access to the processes that went into their formulation.

Gameplay is process, and if we choose to think about it otherwise after play we are doing something.  Literary text as we encounter it is not a process, so to choose to think about it as a fixed object is not a choice: it's the only option.
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Chris Lehrich
Matt Snyder
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« Reply #12 on: December 03, 2004, 11:37:49 AM »

Yes, Chris, I think I do see the distinction, especially after having read your recent post, which I found very interesting and compelling.

My reply is that you're right. But, I think we're less temporarily concerned in RPGs than in text, or possibly even in myth. We're concerned with play, right here, right now.

That is, I'm hesitant to say there's any need for "final cut." And, hence, the line between revision and interpretation is very blurry. Intersting, if that's the case.

So, the question is ... does play ever end?

(Cue dramatic music, Snyder, you smart ass.)

I think play does end (or maybe "can end"), ONLY when players agree in some way (spoken or otherwise) that it has ended and stick to that rule. Otherwise, there could be no final cut.

That is, you say we are doing something "after" play. I pose the question to you -- is that "doing something", that process afterwards play? Or not? Has play ended?

I'm not convinced either way, but I'm leaning toward "has not ended."
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Matt Snyder
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clehrich
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« Reply #13 on: December 03, 2004, 12:42:48 PM »

Matt, you and I are now in agreement, completely.

Yes, exactly.  What we care about in RPGs is processual and occurs here and now.  And it is made up of layer upon layer of social interactions and rules and descriptions and everything else.  And no, it never stops, is never really fixed in a final form.  Since to me revision is a procedure whose purpose is to generate the final form, I would tend to avoid using the term in reference to RPGs precisely because they never have such a form.

Cool!
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Chris Lehrich
Marco
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« Reply #14 on: December 03, 2004, 04:15:34 PM »

I just wanted to say that I think in RPG's the 'text' in the case of Matt's took/didn't take the ring is exactly the dialog that happened--that is, the textual content (which is a bad term--since, unless the game was on IRC there is no actual text) is the story-making decision between the players.

That is, the character took, and then revised not to take, the ring. The idea of someone talking about taking the ring years later IS, IMO, vaid and coherent--since he did take the ring--it was just revised later.

The final transcript is only a part of the full text of the game, not all of it.

I'm not sure if that adds much, but there you go.
-Marco
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