Games as art objects

This is a topic I often return to as someone who spends more time thinking about games than actually playing them. One of my hobbies is to read RPG rulebooks, soaking in the atmosphere and considering how certain aspects of the games might play out if I ever decided to put a group together. Of course there are about a million more games than I will ever be able to play, and so what ends up happening is that I sit alone reading through the various systems and source books admiring the work that went into them.

I don’t believe that most games are designed with this in mind, but I do find it interesting as a sort of emergent facet of game design. Specifically, what inspired me to write this post is the recently released behemoth of a game Invisible Sun by Monte Cook. Completely leaving aside the way the game plays, or the cost ($200+ for physical and $100 for the PDF), I want to talk about the way the game exists aesthetically.

It’s clear that this is a Big Game. There are six or seven books, envelopes with handouts, props, statues, decks of spell cards, an oracle deck, maps, artwork, and all that good stuff. Thumbing through the resources gives me the impression that care and passion went into it, from the typesetting to the layout design to the worldbuilding to the dozens and dozens of pieces of art across the multiple books. Honestly, it’s gorgeous to look at, and I have no idea how it even plays. I have no idea how I would introduce it to a group, or how I could convince someone to spend that kind of money on a game. The bottom line is that just experiencing the game as it presents in text and as art is very satisfying.

I suppose the discussion I want to have is about whether that can be enough, whether a game designed as an “experience” works for you, and whether that kind of game should be supported or encouraged. Also in this camp I think of games like Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, a fabulous set of books with a character that feels so powerful and emotional and punchy, and whose very writing is just as much a part of the art and the game.

Other examples of these kinds of “Big Games” I’ve come across recently include KULT: Divinity Lost and Degenesis and things of their ilk. Evocative imagery, books, settings, atmosphere, and all the rest. They’re the kinds of games that a GM needs to sit down with for hours and hours just to get the right feel, even before trying to explain the game to a potential group of players.

So what do you all think of games that make their art and worldbuilding and even the graphic design so much the forefront of their presentation? I love to view games as both visual and written art, but on the other hand I can definitely see an argument made that these priorities are backwards from the perspective of designing a game meant to be played.


I am not so sure about that. Many, many people buy game books for the pleasure of reading them and rarely if ever play. Many people have the collector’s impulse and accumulate shelves of material they will never play, but that they enjoy reading. I think it is easy to point to particular companies and eras when this niche was being well served.


I know that’s a big reason why I look for games, and it’s very satisfying for me in the same way that reading graphic novels or fiction or trawling through fan art is satisfying.

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See also games that are basically art objects by design. Tim Hutchings’ Apollo 47 is one of my favorite tabletop roleplaying games and it comes in a 1200 page technical manual. The object is the game is the object.


I’ve never heard of that, but it looks awesome! I’m really drawn to this “art first, game second” concept as a sort of side fascination.


I still need to play… Just got the updated rules though. (Have the original cards though…)

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I’m reminded of Brenda Romero’s “Train,” which is not a roleplaying game but is definitely an art object. It’s only ever been played a handful of times, never mass produced, includes an authentic Nazi typewriter as a game component.

I’m editing this to add a couple more thoughts about this game. It probably would be possible to mass produce the game and ship it out to educational groups and holocaust memorials and so on. Even if you can only really experience it “as intended” once, it might be worthwhile to have this object in front of more people, and to be played by more people.

So why make just one? Why turn it into an art project instead of an artifact of play let loose in the world?

Maybe the game has more impact this way. As a thing that can be seen and discussed, oft analyzed but rarely played. Hearing the stories of others’ play experiences, each one a little morality play, provides much of value. Would it be better to have everyone who hears about the game all play it instead? I guess we could debate that, but I’m not sure it needs to be played to make its point, and it’s easier to get 100,000 people to read an article or watch a video than play a strategy board game with a twist ending.

Does a game have power unplayed? Did I get more value from playing Dog Eat Dog than reading it? I’m not sure I did.


I think for me it does, but I agree that there hasn’t been a for me game that had more power unplayed than played.

I think Train is loathsome because to engage with it you, by definition, cannot consent to the experience it delivers. As art that’s fine, I guess, but it is also facile and dishonest. I’m glad few people get to experience the fun surprise ending, and think reading about it delivers the same simple message about complicity. Train uses a game’s affordances to deliver a work of art, which sets it apart a little.

To address “does a game have power unplayed?” I’d ask you to define power. Just hearing about a game once set my brain on fire and changed my relationship to roleplaying forever. It was like a switch flipped and the boundaries of the possible totally changed. I’d call that power, of a sort.


I feel the same way. I think I would hate to play “Train” as intended, and I never design games with surprise endings. I used to really hate Train for these reasons, but I have come around to it since, because of the phenomenon we’re discussing. Understanding the game and how it’s played is enough to make its point, you don’t actually need it to happen to you. And the secrecy is also part of the point. The crimes of the Nazis were covered up by the regime, but are obvious in retrospect and should have been obvious in the moment, too. The broken glass, Nazi type writers, and, well, trains should give it away well before the “twist.”

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I’m not sure if there’s something here to agree with, but, if there is I agree. I was gifted Numenera and the Ninth World Guidebook a few months ago. Haven’t had a chance to play them but damn if I don’t really enjoy reading them.

One thing that is frequently true about art that is presented in an isolated way (e.g. a mural on an otherwise bare gallery wall, a core book that is read but never played) is that it is successful if it, rather than merely diverting or detaining you, changes you. I haven’t played Numenera yet but I walked away from those texts with ideas I never would have had otherwise.


I like that way of thinking about it. I feel like just reading a rulebook sometimes flips something in my head and makes me think about gaming or writing or life in a new way, or introduces me to an interesting new concept or idea.

Always felt the vampire the masquerade (2e) book had an art object quality

its one of the few rpg books ive read cover to cover in one go, the black and white art is well drawn and fits the genre, and the text evokes the mood and style well

while i’m not keen on the WoD system, that book is a good example of how to nail the genre.


I feel like Joshua A.C. Newman would have a lot to say on this topic. His games are always evocative works of language and graphic art as well as playable RPGs. Check out the Bloody Handed Name of Bronze for an example:


This is one of those snarly questions that I keep coming back to. My main qualm with it is that, on some level, I disagree with the idea that a game is the same thing as the book it’s in. To me, games have always felt more ephemeral, less tangible; a game is a game by its rules, not by its physical parts.

You can play chess without a chessboard or pieces, and it’s still chess. Likewise, you can play any non-digital game—especially a roleplaying game—without its pieces or dice or books or whatever. The game doesn’t stop being a game just because you don’t have the physical parts.

Because of that, I’ve always been wary of the notion of games as art objects. While the appeal of big fancy artbooks is definitely there, I feel like the emphasis in an RPG should be placed on the game—that is to say, its design and mechanics, rather than any physical component.

That said, there is something completely magical about cracking open some enormous RPG tome to settle in, so I dunno.

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That said, the act of playing an RPG is art. Some new type of art with its own vocabulary that is still in creation.

Where it gets discey in relation to this thread - is the rules book ALSO art? Is it different? Or is it more “craft”? If it is art, is it only the visual aspects, or could the rules set and separately also the setting also be considered “art”?

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I totally agree. This is actually something I’m planning to apply academically, specifically looking at RPG play as literature. I think there’s an argument to be made for the “arthood” of all the different components, as well as the “arthood” of the entire thing holistically.