Curtis D. Carbonell’s Dread Trident, the latest addition to the Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies series, focuses on tabletop role-playing games as vital mechanisms in the increasing creation of ‘realized worlds’ in modern culture. We discussed this study of role-playing gametexts with the author.
Could you tell us a bit about Dread Trident and what drew you to focus your research in this area?
I was interested in how role-playing gametexts appeared to be an overlooked area of investigation for literary scholars interested in fantasy and science fiction. It was evident to me from conversations I’d had with colleagues over the years that they were conversant in Tolkien, Howard or Lovecraft, but not a single one knew anything about Dungeons and Dragons (other than to categorize it as ‘that nerdy game’).
I have also been working through posthumanism as a discourse, interested in how technology and the human intersect because we see a form of the posthuman represented in fantasy and science fiction. The threads began to entwine as I saw how embodied roleplaying games provide a touch of the material fantastic in our digitally dominated worlds. I then began my close readings of the archives and saw how the modern fantastic, as a concept, emerged in the play of these gametexts.
Your study argues for the importance of tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs) and explores their rich fantasy gametexts. Why do you think TRPGs have been somewhat overlooked in literary and cultural studies?
The primary barrier is that to have any understanding of these, you have to play them. I was first introduced to Dungeons and Dragons in the early 80s. I only returned to it recently as an adult and literary scholar when I realised that forty years of published material was out there, waiting to be mined. It is easy to say that this material has been overlooked because of its simplicity or lack of textual and psychological depth, but that ‘high-brow’ critique holds less weight today when all manner of cultural activity is open to investigation. I think, also, that for most of the time that role-playing games have been popular, they have been relegated to niche activity by a particular demographic associated with juvenile (often male) geek culture. Its resurgence as a ‘cool’ activity is refreshing, as is its turn to an overt inclusivity.
I think a back door to the investigation of TRPGs may occur as digital game studies continues to break disciplinary ground. As media and game scholars work through the mechanics and meanings of RPG video games, they validate the form. The pen-and-paper, analog forms continue to be created and played as well. These gametexts work within this broader tapestry of fantastic fictive literature that provides agential play for consumers. I think this will continue.
Your book covers multiple TRPGs. Could you tell us more about one of these which particularly stands out to you as a key example in your work?
It has to be Dungeons and Dragons. D&D is the seminal high fantasy TRPG that has dominated popular culture and the form since its beginning in the ‘70s. It also works as a fitting example of how shared/imaginary worlds are created, with the very concept of the multiverse an integral part of its construction. It also uses clever mechanisms that help with harmonising the iterations of its differing campaign settings over the decades.
As a fantasy setting it is superb as an arena of investigation and carries within it enough material for its own monograph. D&D is exemplary for anyone interested in fantasy studies to see how traditional literary studies and analog game studies overlap, in particular, that middle ground where we see literary tropes push up against game mechanics.
Realized fantasy worlds are becoming ever more popular in modern times – why do you think this is the case?
This concept is helpful because it re-orients us away from a naïve realist view of the world (which is still important in many instances, such as the use of engineering to find solutions to practical problems). The ‘realized’, though, refracts our experience of living in a highly technologized (i.e. posthumanized) world inflected with the fantastic. It is this curious flavour that we seeing emerging as a dominant impulse in parts of the world where technology is ascendant. This may be a small portion of the world’s population, but for those of us living it, our lives are often experienced in a liminal place imbued with the modern fantastic. My suspicion is that it is one oblique result of the Modern Crisis and reflects many people’s need for a touch of enchantment in their lives. From reading novels to watching films or playing video games, these overt forms of engaging the fantastic have garnered even greater momentum since the process began in the late 19th century. I am curious about the new forms these fantasy worlds are taking.
For more information on Dread Trident, visit our website.