Thursday, September 8, 2011

Blood In The Sandbox

Growing up a long time ago as I did, I watched television during a particular period in the 1970s during which immorality was paraded as a tease, only to be followed by the tromping heavy boots of morality.  I refer specifically to the TV show Fantasy Island, which fits the trope perfectly for this post since it includes the word 'fantasy' and that's what I want to write about.

For those who may not know the show - I have no idea if it is in reruns, I don't subscribe to television - the episodes always began with the smooth and savvy Mr. Roarke explaining to the midget Tattoo the fantasies of two guests, both arriving on a plane to the Island as the credits ran.  One of these fantasies would be quite innocent and benign, but the other would always have a dark element.  Roarke's voice would deepen and leave the viewer with a suggestion that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

But when I say 'dark element,' I mean 1970s dark.  These would be things such as a man wanting to cheat on his wife, or seeking revenge, or living the life of a 'vampire' - in the campy Hammer films sense, of course.  And always, the shows would tease the villainy just so far, before things would go terribly wrong and force the fantasizer back onto the straight and narrow, as they realized their fantasies demonstrated a lack of character or some such.  No one ever died, or was shot, no sex ever happened, no one ever did anything that was bad ... but the viewer was drawn in with the HOPE of seeing something bad, only to be bitchslapped by Roarke's moral intervention.

Even at the age of 14 when I saw this show I knew the principle was ridiculously wrong.  I wanted people to wallow in these fantasies, since they sound very interesting ... much more interesting that the woman who only wanted to meet the father she had never known or the man who dreamed of being a star athelete.  I recognize we have these fantasies, too, but since everyone in the real world thinks its okay to pursue them, it makes a very dull TV show.  The creators knew the real pull was vice ... the vice they wouldn't give us because this was the 1970s.

It hasn't changed much.  I catch pieces of television shows on the net, watching a season of this or that, and the rules are the same.  Tempt the viewer with SOME vice, but don't let it run wild.  the amount of vice we can show has increased and intensified (RE: True Blood), but it still has its element of 'this is bad vice' and 'this is good vice.'  It's okay to bite the necks of your victims a little ... but don't lose control.

In the realm of television that makes sense, I suppose.  There are all these innocent people who only want their fantasies served with meat and potatoes, who are little old grandmothers who still remember when films did not include swearing or blood, or who were scandalized by Fantasy Island 33 years ago.  Frankly, however, I'm a little tired of having my fantasies regulated and restrained by grandmothers ... or by the Old Guard of RPG designers, for that matter, who seem to have similar tastes.

We are told that:

D&D must not appear to be about wallowing in the fantasies of evil because we would like our participation in this game to be accepted.  We can't be accepted if you, a different participant, insist on slaughtering innocent townspeople or spending too much time enjoying the rewards for doing so.  We would very much like it if you would stop.  We would very much like it if you could continue to play the game as a group of 'Heroes' who rescue maidens and present a clean, pleasant image of yourselves as adventurers.  Any other action on your part stains us all, and surely you recognize that if we are to continue enjoying the benefits of renting large convention centers for getting together, we depend on your cooperation.

More to the point, we are told:

Fantasy is not unrestrained violence.  Fantasy is what we as an acceptable culture has defined it to be, that is, in the tradition of proper literary artists like Tolkein, Baum, Barrie, Howard, Lieber and Lewis.  Lovecraft is all right as long as you keep the real nastiness behind closed doors, and of course Moorcock is okay as long as Jerry Cornelius isn't indulged too far.  If you can be funny like Asprin or clever like Anthony or deep and thoughtful like Leguin that's even better.  But let us have it clear: if it is too much like historical accuracy, we will wave our extended fingers, shake our heads slowly and cluck our tongues.  That is NOT 'fantasy.'  I hope that is clear.

What this leads to is thinking that Carcosa is an 'on the edge' influence on the hobby, as though no one alive has ever heard of H.R. Giger, or even Hieronymus Bosch for heaven's sake.  As though there has been no long tradition extending back centuries describing the horrors and evils perpetrated by human beings on other human beings.  As though we are all restricted in our play to approved sources, Appendix N and other limited compendiums of watered-down late twentieth century B-literature.

The sandbox is bigger, much bigger than that.  And while Mr. Roarke disapproves and tries to intervene, a good half of us playing the game don't really give a shit what the other half thinks.  We are going to go on being horrible awful people, however that stains the blessed robes of the frustrated elite that can't convince us that PR is more important that RP.  They'll go on trying to spread the new, clean sand over the blood we've spilled, but the blood will always seep up and spoil their efforts.

Killing pretend, fictional creatures is fun.


Todd said...

I can only remember the episode in which this guy's fantasy was to hunt 'the most dangerous game'. Naturally Mr. Roarke could not put anyone else in danger so he took it on himself to be 'the hunted'. I don't know why he need to do this since he could, and often did whip up entire alternate realities for other guests. I think he must have been a djinn or something and bound by some crazy rules. He would make a good NPC, re-skinned or not.

Alexis said...

No, he would make a crappy NPC, spewing exposition and railroading the party and being indefeatable.

Perhaps you don't remember that episode ended with Roarke humiliating the hunter and 'proving' the morality this post argues against.

Butch said...

I've been in campaigns where, after slaughtering the kobold warriors, we entered their caves to find the women and children kobolds.

Of course we slaughtered them all! Leaving them alive would put the villagers at risk.

The usual progression is... you are a little squeamish about it, then you start getting creative about how you are killing them, then you just get bored with it... "I continue thrusting my sword into the pile until the screams stop. Then I ready my torch as Rondo uncorks the first flask of oil."

Alexis said...

That progression, Butch, is exactly the one people feel when they indulge too much into the hedonistic ... and is a completely different, yet related subject. I'd hoped to get to it in this post, but when I saw what I'd written it seemed to make a good ending.

This subject being that wallowing has its limitations - you can only wallow so much before you start to feel the need to do something constructive. Call it the natural progression of levels. Hopefully you've wallowed enough in the first nine levels that by the time you have a name, you're ready to settle down. Of course, if the DM gives too much treasure per adventure, so you go up too quickly, you won't be tired enough of slaughter by 9th to stop doing it ...

This is another post. Have to write it sometime.

gdbackus said...

"Killing pretend, fictional creatures is fun."

As is being killed by them!

Kenwolf said...

i would like to know how people are restraining and regulating your fantasies ? as for rpg's once you have the rules the only person regulating stuff is the DM.

in my games anything goes. if you want to be evil be evil. but don't expect to be treated the same in a town as a nice person would.

as for novels i can see it because publishers and editors are very aware of bad press and stuff like that. they are worried about making money.

SupernalClarity said...

Kenwolf, I think you are missing the point. No one has the physical capacity to restrain Alexis nor his players in whatever fantasies they wish to pursue, but there are plenty of people who can TRY, and trying they very well are. Alexis seems to see this as a symptom of the wallowing RPG community—an illness not helped by the fact that anyone on the internet has few limitations in vocally flaunting their ignorance—and from experience I can't say that I disagree.

As for your last bit, about novels and such: yes, making money may well be a REASON for this, but it is hardly a tenable EXCUSE.

noisms said...

In Orlando Figes' masterpiece, "A People's Tragedy", which is a historical account of the Russian Revolution, he goes into some detail about the things Russian serfs used to do to each other for punishment. The book contains a disturbing account of an execution: the criminal is trussed up by his hands and feet, all tied together, and hoisted into the air by a pulley, then repeatedly dropped to earth, each time landing directly on his back. Eventually his spine is completely shattered, so his torso sags in a grotesque fashion each time it is lifted into the air. The other serfs do this until he has died from shock, pain, and internal bleeding.

I remember reading that and thinking, if this is something humans are willing to do to one another, what the fuck would ORCS do to a human in their custody?

Tedankhamen said...

Thought provoking post, Alexis. Reminds me of Violence: The RPG, and Orc Holocaust, the Slate article written after Gygax's death. The former is great in that by stripping away all elements BUT the violence, the author (who co-wrote Paranoia) laid bare the fundamental fact that a good story with conflict usually involves bloodletting, which Bakhtin posits as a natural release valve that the Western moralists are intent at stopping up, much to people's detriment. Orc Holocaust conversely posits the moral bankruptcy of the experience system based on blood and gold in Gygax's game, while conveniently ignoring that this system is a staple of Old English texts like Beowulf and the better part of Western history from Columbus to the Belgian Congo. Putting aside the fact that is is just a game, little different from the play violence of cops-and-robbers (or worse, cowboys and injuns), our games let us play our heroes, so it is hardly surprising that D&D players would let their violent and mercenary side free when most Western historical heroes like Columbus or Alexander the Great did far worse things in reality than can be imagined in an RPG.