TTRPGs as a generative art form

CW: Rape - The title on an album mentioned once refers to condemning a rapist

So, there’s this movement in electronic ambient & experimental drone music for the endlessly generative piece of music that just starts existing & has no resolution or structure except that one day you stop playing it. First really pioneered by Brian Eno in Music For Airports.

In ambient music, this has created a modern movement for apps that use algorithms and and sometimes pre-programed notes to create an endlessly shifting piece of music. Examples of app albums include: Air, Reflections, Immersion IV, and Bloom: 10 Worlds.

“listen to wikipedia” by Hatnote takes a different tact by generating music based on Wikipedia edits. It’s not random, but it’s based on individual actions far too complex to predict. It will generate music as long as both it and Wikipedia exist. A symbiotic relationship.

Shuffle drone albums are a style of experimental drone music where each track is short (~30 seconds), (mostly) equal length, and start and end on the same note. When you put them in their own playlist and shuffle them, you have a constantly shifting piece of music. Examples include “Shuffle Drones” by Eluvium and “Harvey Weinstein Is a Fucking Rapist” by Naal. Both also turn the track titles into liner notes with instructions on how to play them and messages to the listener.

My favorite roleplaying is like this. The stories that hit me hardest. They start one note joining another in a very short opening, and move immediately to a second act. At some point you are satisfied or bored or busy and stop playing it.

The composition goes back to a liminal space of being where the exact piece doesn’t exist, only the potential for it to exist does. You could restart it at any time and it would basically pick up exactly the same. It is endless only when observable and a unique experience each time.

Yet each piece has its own structure, cadence, and composition. They are very unique and recognizable. You can want to play that specific piece and it will be clearly the same piece, even though it’s totally different. Much like each game, game system, and group is unique.

In a good game, you often leave the story with many hanging notes and little resolution. At best you tack an ending on it to make it feel complete enough in your head to stop thinking about. The incompleteness itself is its own gorgeous subtext about time and causality to be picked apart.

The player or GM themselves becomes the algorithm programming in harmony with the randomness of the dice. Possibilities exist that are collapsed in the moment by dice and split-second decisions of what the closest matching possibility is. A mere conduit of Fate and The Muses.

Generative music exists so far outside the very conception of traditional composition that trying to critique it using those values is absurd and meaningless. It actively defies the very notion of structure and completion.

Likewise TTRPGs often exist outside the bounds of traditional media criticism, especially anything demanding resolution to be seen as valid or existing at all. Truly in the moment roleplay eschews plans. It’s entirely about the feeling of split-second decisions and randomness.

While it’s a valid playstyle to decide certain story-beats are happening, it’s equally valid to fly completely by the seat of your pants from the first second to the last, unsure of what you’ll do until it comes out of your mouth.

Judging one as the other is judging a cake by the standards of a pie. They’re both deserts that have similar ingredients, but the structure and art of them is completely different. A good cake will always be a bad pie because it was never meant to BE a pie.

I think a lot of frustration people express in judging the value of TTRPG stories or judging that judgement comes from people who don’t recognize a cake is not a pie, people who recognize it but wanted cake, & people very irritated that the cake is being criticized for being pie.

Fully generative art is an incredibly beautiful and unique, but it has to be appreciated on its own terms as generative. If you judge it as a pre-composed, pre-scripted, form with structures of resolution, of course it will be unsatisfying.

As Taliesin Jaffe put it, third acts are fiction. The power of generative art is to reflect a reality where systems exist and create meaning and patterns but end only when something externally ends them. Everything is merely potential. I think that’s neat.


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