Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Rut

Thinking on something that Uncle Bear wrote some days ago, yes, D&D is in a rut. He makes the point about fantasy authors, referring to a few from the early-to-mid Twentieth Century—Howard, Moorcock, Vance—as influences on the game. I understand why Vance is included, because its lately come to light that he had something to do with the method for discharging magic, but really, he’s a pretty piss poor author, and no one but no one would have included him on any list twenty years ago. But that to one side.

If there was an author whose name would have come up, at lot, it would have been Tolkein. Of course Tolkein, for without him there would be no races in the game, or at least the races would not be so well defined. Not that I like Tolkein as an author. I was conscious during the whole “Frodo Lives” excitement during the mid 1970s, but the books were horridly dull, full of prepositions (…they headed down the path through the woods to where they could cross over the bridge and past the glade to the inn beside the gate to the back rooms above the main floor…) Two pages and I’m fast asleep (even on the bus to work).

Bear’s argument is that fantasy has fed the game that has now defined the fantasy and both are in a rut. Well, something close to that, anyway. Go read his argument. I’m only here to say that yes, I think that D&D is in an awful rut, but that it doesn’t begin with fiction written in the last fifty years.

If you want to define the culprit for the story trap that grips D&D, you might as well start with Gilgamesh, the oldest extant text in existence. It is the earliest evidence of anyone putting told tales to print, and it is an awful, meandering story about superpowers, destroying monsters, completing a quest and becoming, ultimately, a god. I’m well aware that there are many scholars who love it (I took courses from them in university), but in terms of emotional, on-the-edge of your seat action, it would be like having only one movie being found by a culture five thousand years from now and that movie being Dragonslayer.

Nevertheless, for most of human culture, right up until around 1600 or so, virtually every depicted story about human beings—which are not technically religious— fundamentally circulated around those basic themes. Hero destroys monster, wins princess, gets dead and then deified. Sometimes the dead part is skipped. A lot of the religious stories too, notably the various Hindu texts and parts of the Bible. It is only that the non-religious stories tend to be less preachy and guilt-ridden.

My argument for the very height of this story-telling process would be Spenser’s the Fairy Queen, which is pure D&D and from which a direct line can be drawn to all modern fantasy. Both C.S. Lewis and Tolkein were, as Oxford professors, deeply steeped in the English educational tradition of having read at least the first canto of the very long, long poem in their early schooling, and if you’ve read Spenser you can’t miss the relationship. But if you think the language and internal references of Shakespeare are hopelessly obscure, you’re not quite ready for Spenser…and most aren’t. Which is a shame, because it’s pure D&D.

Others would argue that Cervantes Don Quixote would be the more profound work, and I would agree, but not as a fantasy story. Published in 1605, it is the satire of the fantasy story, in which the attempts by a deluded, ordinary man attempting to live up to the story proves both funny and enlightening.

It is generally considered the earliest modern “novel”—of quality, at least—defined partly by it being in prose but also because it attempts to approach higher subjects than fairy tales. Fairy tales are, in essence, morality tales intended to encourage listeners to dislike cruelty and cling to hope. What is Cinderella, after all, but a story that tens of thousands of abused, poverty-living girls could hear and dream about, thus keeping them passive and accepting because eventually they would be rescued?

But I am swinging a bit off topic.

I’ve said before that D&D ought not to be a game about morality…and that is what the hero image is: it is a moral position, where good triumphs over evil. We all know that vast numbers of DMs insist on paying lip service to this, intervening when players are “too evil” or self-serving, intentionally or unintentionally punishing the more grasping members of a given party while rewarding virtuous, easy-to-DM would-be knights of the round table, who eschew prostitutes and would never, ever act gluttonously. I say easy because for the ordinary DM trapped in the ancient fantasy framework, all that’s wanted are players who will scoop up their predesigned quests and storylines without question. You don’t want these guys to say, “Who the fuck cares? I let the dragon eat the princess…does he give me any treasure for my not doing anything?”

The modern novel is an intellectual development over ancient storytelling, still present in pulp fiction, because it does contemplate higher, more humanly relevant issues…issues which don’t translate well to the fantasy framework of a Saturday evening playing D&D. Mostly because it gets a little creepy before getting awfully uncomfortable. I had a party debating last weekend over the necessary torture of a gnoll cleric…at least half the party (split evenly down the sexual divide) was uncomfortable with the scene, although all it involved were descriptions of slicing off skin and beating the gnoll’s legs with a chain. They would much rather have been turning living things into corpses by the far less intrusive system of ordinary combat.

Every DM has tried this and the results are pretty standard. Have an NPC fall in love with a character. Speak the necessary role-playing lines. Have them get, well, x-rated. Watch everyone get uncomfortable, and jokes get made, and the scene completely fails.

Putting everything like that into old style chivalric statements makes the scene more comfortable. Being the DM and saying, “Please Orric, touch me, touch me everywhere…fuck me hard…I’m so hot for you,” will never play as well around a gaming table as, “Sir Orric, would that I could speak my heart.” It’s corny and it’s where the game is. Players are still generally the same children who used to cry out and throw themselves face down into pillows when the “mushy stuff” came on the movie.

Often DMs will appeal to ideals like honor, duty and loyalty…all concepts taught chapter and verse to the military in order to obtain blind obedience. Which, I suppose, is all most DMs want from their players. Raising the game out of its fairy tale roots involves playing up mental states like guilt, regret, cowardice, impetuousness and hatred. When, in your world, has not HATE been a wonderful motivator in a campaign? When have you attempted to make a player regret his hatred, resisting the urge to make all your villains stock characters without a shred of decency? You want a memorable campaign - then make a player doubt whether or not a villain, once in the hand, should actually be killed? Make it so that thousands of innocents depend on the villain’s survival, even though the villain is as loathsome as they come. What, can’t think of how to do it? You need to read better literature.

Well, I’ll stop there, though I could probably go on. If you want out of the rut, throw out the playbook. Go find yourself another, preferably outside of fantasy fiction. Publishers pick that stuff based on its appeal to narrow-thinking, lowbrow groundlings, knowing they read for simple pleasure, not to expand their horizons. The horizon in a rut is a pretty near one. About four inches in front of one’s face.


Tony said...

You say throw out the playbook, but that's the same thing as throwing out the Player's Handbook. These cliché's exist because they're tied to the system. I won't argue that it's impossible to tell a morally and socially complex tale when morals are divided into 9 arbitrary levels that don't come anywhere close to psychological reality, and where all social complexities are governed under the purview of one attribute. I won't say it's impossible to tell these tales but I will say it's a lot harder to make them feel like reality with those things.

Ultimately D&D succeeds best when one tries to integrate aspects of the system into the setting and story. Levels of experience are absurd in reality, but a DM who can tie them directly to societal rank, even with a little tongue and cheek can greatly enhance the immersiveness of his campaign. However when you try to compare reality to such things the game's immersiveness suffers and the deep story you're trying to tell fails.

D&D is only in a rut because it wants to take it's self more seriously, but in doing so the inconsistencies of the system come to light too readily. There are games that do a far better job at simulating or even emulating reality, so if that's the sort of story you're trying to tell then use one of those games. If you want a game where a level one Bard has aspirations to sing at court because he fell in love with the princess, but the king won't let him in because only level 6 and higher bards are accepted to sing. Then D&D is your game.

noisms said...

Sure people would have included Vance on lists 20 years ago, and in fact they did. His books have been recognised as influential for decades - not on D&D but on fantasy litereature in general. I don't particularly like him either, but he's been recognised for a lot longer than 20 years.

Your analysis re: heroes seems grossly simplistic to me, but maybe I'm missing the point. Heroes like Gilgamesh and Beowulf were womanising mass-murderers and their status was hardly a moral one. They were heroes because they were mighty men and because they were champions of their particular people, not because they were good and triumphed over evil. That seems as banal and obvious a point as it's possible to make.

Your argument about x-rated scenes and torture, i.e. that "Players are still generally the same children who used to cry out and throw themselves face down into pillows when the 'mushy stuf' came on the movie" seems particularaly mistaken. Players, in my experience, don't wish to avoid those topics because they're squeamish or immature. It's because they are (rightly in my opinion) unwilling to talk about explicit sadism and/or explicit sex with their friends. This is an entirely healthy impulse - I don't want to know about my friends' psychosexual pecadillos either. It's not so much a maturity issue as it is a privacy one - in the sense that I don't want MY OWN privacy invaded by fellow players inflicting their weird violent or sexual fantasies on me. Least of all torture, the explicit discussion of which seems to me especially seedy and childish.

Alexis said...


That is the best defense for living in a trench that I have heard yet. Well done.


Your potent refusal to view sex or sadism is a brilliant demonstration of exactly how one throws oneself face-first into a pillow.

Oh, and this line is exceptional:

"Players, in my experience, don't wish to avoid those topics because they're squeamish or immature. It's because they are (rightly in my opinion) unwilling to talk about explicit sadism and/or explicit sex with their friends."

Thus explaining beyond question the utter failure of both sexual and violence porn at our neighborhood box office, and the complete unwillingness for young boys to talk about either.

Tony said...

Excuse me?

I'm at a loss of how anything I said relates to living in a trench, if you could quantify that statement a wee bit.

And as for sex and sadism, the reason why box offices have not opened up to those is that they haven't been seen as marketable, however 300 and Sin City proved that incorrect and studios have since started to take on more adult oriented content from various comic writers. As for sadism and sex in gaming, they do have their place, MUD's and MUX's and chat-based RPG's everywhere will attest to players being more than willing to rp their character's sexual exploits. Noism's statement about players being unwilling to express sexual foibles at a table of peers is right on the money. I've seen exceptions to this, one group watched rapt as the young PC who's character had a deathly fear of girls spent 3 hours of actual play time roleplaying out a date while the rest of the characters were off doing other things. But for the most part it's not done in face-to-face game rooms because those settings aren't intimate enough. You don't fondle your girlfriend in a supermarket for the exact same reason.