Friday, July 10, 2020

Is there such a thing as an RPG aesthetic? 

Is there a way in which role-players build worlds which is different from the way in which writers build worlds? Or is it just that RPG designers are more profligate with their archetypes? 
Tolkien's Middle-earth has been used as a setting for role-playing games, but it isn't really fit for purpose. It isn't interesting enough or fantastic enough or diverse enough. It's a thousand page fog of ancient forests and dark towers. If you aren't Aragorn or Arwen you are probably a footsoldier whose job is to stick to his post and get killed in the first cavalry charge. Frodo is a hero because he keeps plodding along the path God set out for him. Sam is a hero because he keeps plodding along behind Frodo. 

I remember the old ICE supplements, which provided you with corridor by corridor maps of the inside of Barad Dûr: it wasn't quite clear what you were supposed to do with them. (Maybe there were MERP29 groups who broke into the dark tower and killed Sauron and took his stuff: just like there were some Dungeons and Dragons groups who killed Cthulhu.) Most of them seemed to assume that you were going to be a group of woodsman on the edge of Mirkwood fighting small raids against the Orcs; or little Hobbit watchmen keeping the Shire safe from wolves. 
Which might be fun. Anything might be fun. Why not write a whole game about the sanitation crew on the Death Star? Why not play the cook who has to wash up after all those Pentecost feasts at Camelot? But it represents a massive repurposing of Tolkien's setting; almost, taking some words and shapes out of Lord of the Rings and using them to build a role-playing setting of your own.
Tolkien wrote the first few pages of a grimdark sequel to Lord of the Rings, in which sinister Eldritch cultists were worshipping Sauron and naughty punk rockers were dressing up as orcs. The heroes would have been nice Minas Tirithian police officers. He decided after a few pages that the story wouldn't be worth telling. C.S. Lewis often said that there was no point in telling a story about some settlers on Mars if it was very much the same story you might have told about some settlers in New South Wales. 
Conan's universe feels campaign-ready from page 1; practically everyone he meets is a Player Character, a mercenary or a thief or a wandering hero or a pirate. His world is basically a lot of different historical backdrops glued together; so there are Vikings in the North and Ancient Egyptians in the South and Pirates on the Spanish Main and a frontier stockade which wandered in from one of the serious historical westerns Bob Howard would have written if the depression hadn't killed him first. There is just enough background to make it all hang together; but largely this is an exercise in style, not backstory. The Hyperborian Age makes sense because Robert E. Howard tells you it makes sense. 
New writers are often cautioned against becoming too concerned with world-building. If this means "Just because you created a setting for your Dungeons and Dragons game, don't assume that you know how to write a novel" then it is very good advice. But if it means "Good books are never concerned with their setting; setting is only ever window-dressing for the characters to walk in front of" then I think it is very bad advice. 
I think that this is what trips up a lot of people who don't get Tolkien. They have been taught since infancy to follow the holy word of E.M. Forster: that books are about the internal psychology of fully-rounded characters. They find in Sam, Frodo and Smeagle a genuinely interesting psychological triad. But they find that their character-driven drama keeps getting interrupted by history and poetry and landscape and a big war, and conclude that Tolkien doesn't know how to write novels. 
Which by their definition he doesn't. And neither do Herman Melville and Victor Hugo. 
Tolkien created a world; then he told stories which happened in that world. Robert E. Howard told stories and created a world for those stories to happen in. Michael Moorcock didn't care much one way or the other.
I see boxes of games with fantasy imagery on the cover; a symbol set which I instantly recognize; unashamed imagery of barbarians and wizards and dragons and spaceships which would never find their way into a book without being deconstructed to death.
Perhaps the whole role-playing interlude was never about anything other than that blue book: the knights in armour; the wizards in pointy hats; the dragon sitting on a pile of gold. Perhaps I should have framed the picture and avoided the whole process of actually playing the games. 
The dragon sleeping on the pile of gold comes, obviously, from Tolkien, who got it from Wagner, who got it from Beowulf, who got it from some source lost in antiquity. The knight is Arthurian; the real hardware of the Wars of the Roses back-projected to the dark ages and given a heavy overlay of Christian allegory, and then misunderstood by the Victorians and Hollywood. The pointy hatted wizard comes from the same world. Wizards wear pointy hats just as inevitably as pirates go "arrrr". What had brought them all to that point where they were about to fight a dragon? What was their history and their back story? None, obviously. They were three cliches in search of a context. 
I am playing Conan the Barbarian. You are playing Prince Acroyear of Acroyear. She is playing a Teenaged Ninja. We are going into a fairy tale wood out of the brothers Grimm and killing Orcs out of Lord of the Rings. If Superman came down from heaven to save us, no-one would bat an eye-lid. 
Is that, in fact, what Jung meant by archetype: an element of a story that can be thought of outside of the context of the story which it is an element of? The wise old man of whom Gandalf and Father Christmas and Moses are all copies? The post-modernists would say that that is potentially true of all characters. In principal, you can put Tony the Tiger alongside Jean Valjean and generate new constellations of meaning. Post-modernism has a good deal in common with Alan Moore's magical theories. All stories are true. 
So I go into a games shop and I see boxes and boxes of games which speak to me in my own private language.
I do not like or understand all of it. The Games Workshop world is too one-note, too fascist, too spiky, too much itself. I don't really understand where the giant cathedral shaped robots come from. I like the idea of a small army of orcs fighting a small army of dwarfs on a small table. (I believe the rules give the individual units personalities, like in my pirate game.) But Games Workshop is all about models and I could no more paint a miniature than I could play the Internationales on the Northumbrian small pipes. 
But there are many which draw me in. It is harder to tell the RPGs from the boardgames than it used to be: there are single player and cooperative boardgames which seem to have a lot in common with role-games. They come in boxes you can barely lift and can cost £100. Here is one where you are a space smuggler like Han Solo; here is one set in the world of Star Trek. I can do without the endless vampires and werewolves and ghosts; but here is one about pirates and here is one about space soldiers. More fantasy themed quests than could be experienced in a whole lifetime of summer holidays. 
If I was someone else I might say to me: be a little epicurean about this. Remember what C.S. Lewis said about bicycles. If you like the pictures, just look at the pictures. If the game shop makes you feel nostalgic then enjoy the nostalgia. It is pleasurable to look at fantasy pictures because they remind you of the happy games you used to play when you were a schoolboy, the only time in your childhood when you had any friends, before your father got sick; then enjoy that pleasure. If the pictures are pretty than look at the pretty pictures. Lots of us have a beloved old teddy bear on the the shelf; and lots of us get warm feelings looking at him; but that doesn't mean that we are ever again going to make little honey sandwiches and have teddy-bears picnics on the bedroom floor.

Here comes another confession: I like the rules of role-playing games. 
I, Andrew Rilstone, who invented free-form games and story-telling games and coined absurd phrases like player centred narrative. I like the rules of role-playing games. 
I like the clatter of dice across the table. I like holding ten dice in my hand, and when someone says "Just how good an X-Wing pilot are you?" chucking them across the table and saying "This good". 
Yes, when I was a referee I used to fudge and cheat and ignore the rules to facilitate the game play experience I wanted. But I still believed there should be rules there for me to fudge. 
I don't particularly like the idea of a universe happily demarcated into neat little formulae. I don't think that knowing the rules should necessarily give you more control over the story. This is what some people like; it is clearly what Barrowcliffe liked. He was delighted when Advanced Dungeons and Dragons came out because it contained a whole new pattern of numbers and monsters and spells for him to memorize. It seems to be how Gary Gygax literally believed the universe worked. 
But there was fun, in the old days, in cashing in your one thousand Experience Points to go from being a First Level Magic User to being a Second Level Magic User. There was fun in spending your gold on weapons and armour and the inevitable ten foot pole. But I was uneasy from the very beginning about a world where if you said that someone was a Seventh Level Chaotic Good Dwarf Cleric you had said all that needed to be said about them. We weren't using numbers and rules to quantify and interpret an imaginary world. The rules and the numbers came first. The world was made of rules. Dungeons and Dragons was a game which knew that it was a game.30

Philosophers argue about how words are connected to things. Would there be any things if we didn't have words to describe them? Or are words just vague labels that equate fairly usefully to objects we can perceive? Are stories created by rules? Or are rules just blunt instruments some people use to adjudicate stories? Has anyone ever tried to write a novel about a Dungeons and Dragons obsessed gentleman who dresses up in his LARP gear and mistakes the local windmills for some 20D6 AC1 Hill Giants? 

29 Middle Earth Role Playing.

30 Never mention FRUP.

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1 comment:

Nick Middleton said...

Many of the more terrible experiences I have had with RPGs have come about when the GM had a specific story they were expecting the group to "play through", and insisted on wrestling what was happening back to that whenever it deviated.

Many of the best experiences I have had with RPGs have been when the session, or multiple sessions, have spiralled off on a path that is consistent with both the characters and world, but was not planned by the GM or players in any meaningful sense, we all just in our various roles just went with it.

The genius, the fatal glory, of RPGs is what arises spontaneously at the table, in actual play. Dice and rules are a useful prop to help that happen - they give us all a common framework (or at least, the shared pretence of a common framework) to work within but they are not the sole point.

Equally, a group can collaboratively create a shared fiction without anything resembling RPG rules - but the few times I have participated in such a thing it has NOT given me what I get from RPGs.

What I, and I think many of us way back then, and still now, enjoy most, seek out most keenly, is that spontaneous sense of immersion (someone wrote an article about that I think), those things that we look back on in terms of compelling / affecting narrative, but at the time we are too caught up in our characters and the shared imaginative construct. Narratives and story are things we find in what we have done afterwards; in the moment we are caught up in the wonder and play... or trying to remember whether we need a proper +1 sword or just a silvered weapon to hit a Jackalwere... (and since the DM's distracted getting sidetracked in to a discussion about what a "silvered" weapon means, given silver is a terrible metal to make weapons from...)