By Tyler Brunette
In ‘Back to the Future: Wells, Sociology, Utopia, and Method,’ Ruth Levitas argues:
[…] we would be better served both as sociologists and as citizens by a more utopian method, one which embraces the Imaginary Reconstruction of Society (IROS) as an active device in reflexive and collective deliberations about possible and desirable futures.
Few activities dovetail better with Levitas’ proposal, one of collective deliberation and active imagination, than tabletop roleplaying. Indeed, both utopianism and tabletop roleplaying are often derided by their detractors as mere frivolity, and unworthy of serious consideration. However, as an interactive medium based on cooperative imagination of the possible, tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) offer a unique opportunity for analysis of the practice of the IROS.
In this article, I analyze one such game: SoulJAR Games’ The Book of Cairn (Cairn). While at first glance, Cairn appears to be little more than yet another ‘fantasy heartbreaker,’ I argue that Cairn’s combination of unique rules and use of a pastoralist utopian setting function as a method of critique, of both contemporary social conditions, and of the themes embraced by the TTRPG industry more broadly. Specifically, I argue, two interlocking rhetorics are built into the rules of Cairn, producing through play of the game both a sense of what would be necessary to maintain (albeit imperfectly and abstractly) a small pastoralist utopian society, and also an enactment of those activities around the gaming table. Before turning to my analysis of Cairn and the implications of its rules, I first address the theoretical underpinnings of my approach. After my analysis, I conclude by discussing the limits of Cairn’s IROS.
For Levitas, utopias are not just an object of study, but a method resulting in the IROS. She explains, ‘Utopia creates a space in which the reader is addressed not just cognitively, but experientially, and enjoined to consider and feel what it would be like not just to live differently, but to want to live differently. As a result the taken-for-granted nature of the present is disrupted.’ Utopias function as an implicit (or explicit) critique of society. They do so not only by articulating what a better society could look like, but also by emphasizing the contingent character of things the reader may take for granted. Even if the reader eventually decides they prefer reality to the utopia, they can better understand that reality as neither natural nor inevitable. In these ways, the utopian act of imagining a reconstructed society shares obvious similarities to tabletop roleplaying. As Webb notes, ‘The process of reconstruction itself requires imaginative abstraction from everyday life, with thought detaching itself from existing circumstances and transcending reality.’ For Levitas, the IROS serves critics in three functions, archeologically, architecturally and ontologically. Archeologically, the IROS serves as a way of digging through popular and political discourse to unearth significant fragments, assembling them into a coherent concept of a better society, which the critic can then display for scrutiny and critique. Architecturally, the IROS offers the critic a holistic modeling of alternatives. And ontologically, the IROS allows for the individual and collective to both imagine themselves differently. Levitas’ call for scholars to embrace the IROS as a way of rescuing utopia from the pressures of capital, industry, and fixed accounts of ‘human nature’ (especially evolutionary psychology) has resulted in the technique being adopted for the analysis of a variety of texts, from poetry to architecture.
These authors’ positioning of utopias as both critique and critical tool dovetails with the other primary theoretical lens I bring to Cairn, procedural rhetoric. In ‘Utopia as Method, or Uses of the Future,’ Fredric Jameson suggests that analysis of utopia can be done along lines of both content and form, while also complicating the distinction between the two (the construction of freeways to Los Angeles, he suggests, ‘might be thought of as a philosophical concept in its own right’). In the TTRPG, content broadly corresponds to the narrative worldbuilding elements of the game, which establish the setting, history, non-player characters, and all other narrative material. In contrast, the form of a TTRPG refers to the rules which govern player interactions with the narrative elements. A particularly useful lens for the analysis of rules systems, specifically game rules, is Ian Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric. As the name implies, procedural rhetoric draws from the rhetorical tradition’s study of persuasive expression. As Bogost explains, ‘procedural rhetoric is a technique for making arguments with computational systems and for unpacking computational arguments others have created.’ Thus, just as the utopic IROS is dual natured, functioning as both method and critique, procedural rhetoric is similarly dual natured, both a critical tool and an artifact of analysis. Procedural rhetoric argues that the rules of games propose models not only for how the world works, but how players can interact with it and each other. The processes which construct the model reward and punish specific actions within the model, and thus shape both the play of the game, and the players’ perception of that which it models. Over time, through interaction with procedures, the logic of those procedures influence the players, seeding changes in attitudes, values, and beliefs.
While Bogost uses the idea of procedural rhetoric exclusively to analyze the rules systems of videogames, he makes clear that procedurality is not confined to the digital, making room for procedural rhetorical approaches to a host of human enacted processes, including tabletop gaming. Drawing from Bogost’s explanations of procedural rhetoric, Schallegger notes that TTRPGs are particularly invested in procedurality: ‘The narration of RPGs is carried by the players’ interaction with the mechanics and dynamics of the game. If there is no interaction, there is no game.’ In short, in TTRPGs, both players and rules mediate the gameplay. Rules provide a framework for the players to interact with in the creation of stories, and the physical possibilities, metaphysical conventions, and ideological implications of those rules implicitly shape the types of stories that can and will be told by players.
The Utopia of Cairn and its Rhetorical Implications
Published in 2014, The Book of Cairn is a fantasy TTRPG set in a distant future where humanity has been destroyed by the gods, called Bright Ones, and anthropomorphic animals have replaced them as the dominant sapient species. Players play as animal characters from the eponymous village of Cairn, a pastoral utopia in the mold of Tolkien’s Shire. Unlike most settings in traditional fantasy TTRPGs, Cairn is bereft of serious danger. There is no ancient evil awakening and threatening the land, the dragons are quite reasonable and hospitable, and there are no dungeons full of evil creatures to slay. The authors of Cairn take pains to differentiate the setting from the often-dystopic traditions of fantasy TTRPGs, explaining, ‘You may think this setting was intentionally created devoid of conflicts, and you’d be right.’ The reasoning given for this deviation, is that Cairn is meant to develop small-scale drama, befitting the small scale of the sentient woodland creatures players portray. To facilitate this small-scale drama, the authors of Cairn developed two subsystems which not only structure play, but produce strong procedural rhetorical arguments regarding utopia, community, and sociality. The first of these, Town Statistics, drives much of the action and is the impetus for PCs to adventure. The second, Harmony, both individualizes the stakes of adventuring beyond the traditional fantasy TTRPG’s use of violence, and gives PCs an important reason to return to their utopic homes. While each of these subsystems produces its own procedural rhetoric, taken together, they offer a clear argument about the work required to maintain a pastoral utopia. In both cases, these rules prompt players toward character actions that are prosocial in the effort of maintaining the utopia of Cairn.
Much as characters have statistics in Cairn, the village of Cairn also is abstracted into numerical statistics: Food (representing the food and water resources), Resources (the material resources of the town, such as lumber and stone), Morale (the collective self-esteem of the citizenry), and Security (the towns capacity to survive catastrophic dangers). All four statistics are raised and lowered through the course of play. When the players successfully complete an adventure, the Narrator raises the town statistic most associated with that adventure. For example, an adventure to determine why pumpkins are disappearing from a farmer’s fields would likely increase the Food score, while an adventure to repair a bridge used to access the local woodlands might raise Resources. Additionally, the players can collectively select a statistic to be raised. If the Narrator determines that the adventure was unsuccessful, for instance if the players were unable to catch the pumpkin thief, then no statistics are raised. After three adventures have been attempted, the season changes to winter, all town statistics are reduced by one, and the Narrator rolls on the Winter Effects table, which has an over ninety percent chance of lowering at least one additional statistic.
The abstraction of the state of the utopia of Cairn mandates that PCs seek to solve problems for their community before they spiral out of control. The addition of the random element of statistical decay drives players to focus their adventures broadly, and to think holistically about the wellbeing of their community. Unlike most fantasy TTRPGs where the impetus for adventure is the slaying of evil monsters or the collecting of treasure, Cairn’s procedurality positions adventuring as a prosocial activity, one meant to reinforce ties to community, and strengthen that community, instead of providing a reason to leave it. Failure, then, is not just a personal setback, but one in which a whole community can suffer as a result. Similarly, success is a shared success, one where the whole IROS is made more resilient, in an easily seen and measured way, resulting from PC actions. The mechanics are moderately forgiving, however: the town of Cairn can tolerate a failed adventure every two years, without noticeable decline.
The procedural rhetoric of the Town Statistics mechanics of Cairn argues that utopias, even imaginary ones, are not self-sustaining. Work is necessary to keep a small pastoral utopia from running low on food, resources, morale, and security. Players are positioned as caretakers of their community, as opposed to wandering transients in search of gold, experience points, or monstrous others to slay. The process of maintaining the central IROS thus serves as an implicit critique of the violent transience otherwise characteristic of fantasy TTRPGs. It suggests, implicitly, not just a better possible future for TTRPG settings, but also what it could feel like to do the work of maintaining a pastoral utopia. This caretaker role is further enriched by Cairn’s other highly distinctive mechanic, Harmony.
Harmony is a sliding scale mechanic measuring how well a character is abiding by the rules of the compact established by the Bright Ones. In short, it is a morality and mental wellbeing indicator. The Harmony scale ranges from -10 to 20, with higher numbers representing more adherence to the compact and lower numbers representing deviation. This scale is broken into four states. If a character is at 16 or higher Harmony, they are in a state of ‘grace’ and receive a variety of mechanical benefits, such as doubled critical success chance, the ability to sense low Harmony people and objects, and additional Harmony rewards when celebrating. If a character has a Harmony score between 1 and 15, they are in a state of ‘balance’ and the Harmony System provides no bonuses or penalties. A score between 0 and negative 10 puts a character into ‘discord,’ doubling their skill roll failure rate, allowing for critical failures, and allowing enemies bonus actions to attack them in combat. If a character’s Harmony rating falls below -10, they become ‘dire,’ and the Narrator is instructed to take over the character and use them as a villain for future stories.
While death is rare in Cairn, the Harmony system can potentially take a character away from a player, and create a new adversary for the group. Players are thus encouraged to maximize Harmony gains and mitigate Harmony losses. Harmony is gained through ‘defeating the unnatural’ (an intentionally ambiguous wording, meant to encourage non-violent solutions), by ‘restoring balance to nature’ (such as disrupting magical artifacts or cleansing a woodland of a corrupting blight), and by ‘celebrating’ (a catch-all term for prosocial activities, such as visiting sick friends, hosting a dinner party, or helping someone weed their garden). Conversely, Harmony is lost through displays of violence, carrying metal equipment (which is otherwise mechanically more effective than bone, wood, leather, and stone tools), casting magical spells, and encountering the unnatural (such as a long forgotten human relic). Whenever a character would lose Harmony, they have a chance to avoid the loss by succeeding on a Willpower skill check. Additionally, some character professions reduce a character’s maximum Harmony score.
The interaction of Town Statistics and Harmony results in a cyclical nature of play. Characters leave on adventures, in order to raise flagging Town Statistics. On such adventures they will likely engage in violence, encounter the unnatural, equip themselves with metal armor and tools, or have pressing reasons to use magic. Depleted of Harmony, they must then return to Cairn to recover both physically and spiritually from their time away from their community. Players and storytellers are required to roleplay out activities that raise Harmony, rather than just bringing it back to maximum between adventures (in the manner that the game treats Health and Mana Points). Essentially, while bodies will heal on their own and Mana will refill, one’s morality and social connectedness requires active effort to maintain and repair in Cairn.
The Harmony rules of Cairn create a procedural rhetoric of arithmetic moral clarity. Which actions will or will not potentially result in Harmony loss are already known ahead of time by the players, and the only question is the amount of Harmony that they might lose. Furthermore, the clearly enumerated scale of Harmony provides players with a constant monitor of their character’s moral positioning. The advantages of high Harmony and the disadvantages of low Harmony reinforce the need for constant self-surveillance and self-management, as low Harmony not only impacts the player’s play experience but can create future problems for the rest of the playgroup if the character becomes dire and is removed from the group.
At first blush, this procedural rhetoric is unremarkable, in that it seemingly reproduces discourses of neoliberalism which call for isolated individuals to undertake continuous self-surveillance and self-improvement. However, the Harmony system of Cairn differs from this neoliberal logicin a number of key ways. Unlike the limitless self-improvement demanded by neoliberal capitalism, Harmony has an upper limit. In Cairn, one, in fact, can be good enough! Additionally, because the ways individuals regain Harmony are social and community based, and the threat of low Harmony impacts the entire IROS developed through the play of the game, Cairn re-situates moral and mental wellbeing as a collective concern, rather than an individualized moral failing. Whereas the calls for continuous self-improvement under neoliberalism drive isolation and perpetual work, Cairn’s Harmony rules invite an active shared responsibility for moral and social wellbeing of self and others alike.
This procedural rhetoric of collective concern for moral wellbeing has impacts that can spill over from the storytelling. Because maintaining Harmony scores above zero is incentivized, because Harmony maintenance must be roleplayed at the table, and because Harmony is primarily regained through prosocial activities, the rules for Harmony transform the social environment of the table. The responsibility for keeping Harmony scores high is collectivized. Players must actively participate in one another’s social, mental, and moral wellbeing. The activities of adventuring and care are not marked by gender, race or class. All players participate fully in socially reproductive labor, which is framed as celebratory. Harmony not only implicitly critiques the disconnected nature of most fantasy TTRPG adventurers, but because it is part of an IROS, provides an experience of what an egalitarian community of mutual aid and care might encompass.
In Levitas’s terms, Cairn not only gathers together potential ingredients of a good society (the archeological mode), and assembles them into a coherent holistic model (the architectural mode). Cairn also gives players ways of educating our desire, educating our hope, and ‘imagining ourselves otherwise’ (the ontological mode). The IROS’s ontological mode concerns fundamentally different ways of being, asking us, what kinds of beings might we be? Can we go beyond merely picturing these ways of being, and start to occupy them, in our perceptions, attitudes, and experiences? Recurring and cyclical persuasive games such as Cairn can reinforce such ontological shifts, in ways that other non-ludic IROS may otherwise neglect.
By collaboratively enacting utopia, we are also collaborating on an implicit critique of current conditions. Or, in Bogost’s terms, strong procedural rhetoric in Cairn not only has the potential to persuade, it can also spark reflection by players. Bogost explains, ‘procedural rhetoric also produces simulation fever. It motivates a player to address the logic of a situation in general, and at the point at which it breaks down and gives way to a new situation in particular.’ In the case of Cairn, the cyclical play created through the Town Resources and Harmony rules works, at the least, to unseat and disrupt the predominant logic of the reasons for and results of adventuring work in fantasy TTRPGs. Motivations and results of adventuring are shifted from the personal to the communal. Cairn argues that utopias will take work, sometimes alienating work, and that in a better world, caring for and dealienating those laborers will need to be a shared, rather than personal, responsibility. Furthermore, as all TTRPGs engage in at least some IROS, the experience of caring for community and each other inherent in the mechanics of Cairn gives a sensation of how we might be otherwise which is ‘the beginning of utopian desire for a better life and a better world.’
None of this is to say that Cairn’s approach toward structuring the utopic IROS is without flaw. The world of Cairn is heavily modeled on a nostalgia for a European communal village life that never was, rather than any actual premodern European practices of commoning, gift exchange or mutual aid, not to mention a vast array of Indigenous approaches to caretaking that currently fight for survival, such as the Australian Aboriginal ‘work for country’ or the Dakota ‘being in good relations.’ Beyond the privileging of European aesthetics and modes of engagement with both the social and natural world, this focus on a bygone pastoralism threatens to divert attention from more feasible utopian imaginings. Furthermore, the destruction of humanity and replacement with anthropomorphic animals in Cairn replicates a common and problematic trope of utopia/dystopia media, whereby social and ecological collapse is romanticized as the solution to injustice, rather than an exacerbation of injustice that disproportionately impacts the vulnerable. Additionally, the small scale of the communitarian utopia presented in Cairn reifies common critiques arguing that better societies are only available on the small scale. Yet, as Levitas reminds us, all utopias are necessarily multiple, and provisional. While Cairn’s content is heavily invested in a mythic European pastoralism, which does undercut the critical elements its play generates through the IROS, the procedural rhetoric of the game does critique the logic and practice of both most fantasy TTRPGs and current social conditions, while giving players a space for imagining and experiencing a better social world. The procedural rhetoric of Cairn makes clear that not only should the utopic IROS be extended beyond the academy, but that the academy should take such imaginings more seriously.
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Fiskio, J. ‘Apocalypse and Ecotopia: Narratives in Global Climate Change Discourse,’ Race, Gender & Class (19):1, 2012, pp. 12-36.
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Jørgensen, Mikkel Nørregaard. ‘Horizons Without Borders: Wendy Trevino’s ‘Cruel Fiction’ and the Utopian Poetry of the Commune,’ Studies in Arts and Humanities 5(1) (2019), pp. 49–66
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Ramos, Juan G. ‘Utopian Thinking in Verse: Temporality and Poetic Imaginary in the Poetry of Nicanor Parra, Mario Benditti, and Roque Dalton, Hispanófila 178 (2016), pp. 185-203
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TallBear, Kim. ‘Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming.’ KALFOU. 6:1 (2019), pp. 24-41.
The Book of Cairn. SoulJAR Games (2014).
Webb, Darren ‘The Bitter Product of Defeat? Reflections on Winstanley’s Law of Freedom,’ Political Studies, 52 (2004), pp. 199-215.
 Ruth Levitas, ‘Back to the Future: Wells, Sociology, Utopia and Method,’ The Sociological Review, 58:4 (2010), p. 531.
 The term ‘Fantasy Heartbreaker’ is a term often used among TTRPG enthusiasts to refer to an independently published roleplaying game in the mold of Dungeons and Dragons. The term, while often used derisively, also is used, as it is here, to connote that a game is deserving of more interest from the community than it will likely ever receive. See Ron Edwards, ‘Fantasy Heartbreakers,’ The Forge, March 2002. <www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/9/>
 Levitas, ‘Back to the Future’ p. 542.
 Darren Webb, ‘The Bitter Product of Defeat? Reflections on Winstanley’s Law of Freedom,’ Political Studies, 52 (2004),p. 211.
 Levitas, ‘Back to the Future’ pp. 543-544.
 Juan G. Ramos, ‘Utopian Thinking in Verse: Temporality and Poetic Imaginary in the Poetry of Nicanor Parra, Mario Benditti, and Roque Dalton, Hispanófila 178 (2016), p. 185-203; Mikkel Nørregaard Jørgensen, ‘Horizons Without Borders: Wendy Trevino’s ‘Cruel Fiction’ and the Utopian Poetry of the Commune,’ Studies in Arts and Humanities 5(1) (2019), p. 49–66; and Gizem Deniz Guneri, ‘On Varieties of Architectural Utopianism: A Critical Reading of the Twentieth Century Utopian Architecture,’ Proster 27(1) (2019), p. 152-163.
 Fredric Jameson, ‘Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future,’ in Utopia/Dystopia: Conditions of Historical Possibility eds Michael D. Gordkin, Helen Tiley, and Gyan Prakash (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 23.
 Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), p. 3.
 Bogost, Persuasive Games, p. 340.
 Bogost, Persuasive Games, p. 10.
 René Reinhold Schallegger, The Postmodern Joy of Role-Playing Games: Agency, Ritual and Meaning in the Medium (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2018), pp. 92-93.
 The Book of Cairn (SoulJAR Games, 2014), p.20.
 Cairn, pp. 186-188.
 Bogost, Persuasive Games, p. 333.
 Levitas, ‘Back to the Future,’ p. 544.
 Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Anthropocene Noir,’ ARENA Journal 41/42 (2013-2014), p. 217-219; and Kim Tall Bear, ‘Caretaking Relations, Not American Dreaming,” KALFOU 6(1) (2019), p. 24-41.
 Janet Fiskio, “Apocalypse and Ecotopia: Narratives in Global Climate Change Discourse” Race, Gender & Class (19):1, 2012, p. 21-22.
 Fisko, ‘Apocolypse and Ecotopia,’ p. 14.
Tyler Brunette is a Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He received his PhD in Communication from the University of Pittsburgh in 2019 and his M.A. in Communication Studies from Colorado State University in 2015. His research focuses on children’s media culture and interactive fiction.
This article will be included in the forthcoming collection Utopia on the Tabletop (Ping Press). Thanks to the British Science Fiction Association, the Sussex Humanities Lab (Open Practice Group), and the University of Sussex School of Media, Arts and Humanities.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.