Thursday, April 28, 2016

Significance

Finding my equilibrium,

As an additional response to a comment received yesterday, not having to do with my life or my troubles, I'd like to say that I have, at the end of a serious session, sat back and - with the party - considered the significance of what we've created.

Acknowledging that when I say 'significance,' I meaning the word in a very specific way.  I don't mean, as the comment suggests, in the ethical way we are intended to view Shakespeare by high school teachers.  Yes, obviously Macbeth's tragedy is the subject of greed and collusion, in which a well-respected noble finds himself tempted by more power than he deserves, only to find that he's bitten off more than he can chew and that the fates themselves have it in for him.  We are meant, we are told, to view the significance of the play in terms of how we choose to live our lives, recognizing that our time on "the stage," as Macbeth describes, is filled with sound and fury and that we should not put too much stock into it, but recognize that a tale told by an idiot is something that cannot be trusted.

This is not the kind of significance I mean when I say that after an adventure we sit about and think of it.  If we understand the origin of the word 'significance,' we find the Old French significantia: "meaning, force, energy."  Some games I have played have certainly carried these elements.  The monster dies with the last possible roll standing between it and a total-party-kill, the player makes the impossible roll that saves the character's life, a plan comes together so completely that the enemy is destroyed before it has a chance to breathe.  These are moments of great significance, producing memories in us that get told again and again - like that time the thief stripped down to loin cloth, covered himself in mud and then, with a dagger, took out the guards at the gate without taking a single point of damage.  Or the time when the mage tripped (blew a 17 dexterity check), tumbled down three tiers of the stepped pyramid and took 82 total points of damage, dying.  Or was shot.  Or found that weapon of the gods.  Or some other notable moment that turned the game around.

Are these moments as significant as Shakespeare?  Absolutely.

The key is to try and see Macbeth - or any other play of the reader's choice - from down on the ground, as it were.  Will the player or DM produce the lofty writing, the soaring eloquence, the stately aphorism that makes clear the literary prescription?  No, probably not.  But Macbeth - the real Macbeth, not the fellow spouting words on boards for an audience - his thoughts were certainly those of a 'player.'  Would a player take the opportunity to kill a king with an eye to seizing the kingdom?  Would a player be possessed and terrified by the ghost of a vanquished enemy such as Banquo?  Would a player turn to witches to get out of a crisis?  Would a player scream at Macduff, "Fuck yes, let's fight!" then lay on forthwith?  Yes, damn straight.

And when the player died or lived, how long would the telling last?

The trouble with 'significance' in a role-playing effort is that too often it is created, promoted and celebrated by the DM.  Note the other part of the statement with which I started the post: we have considered the significance of what we've created - not the significance of what the guy behind the DM screen has created.

And this, I think, is where Ozymandias is right: because we've been programmed to assume that if there is going to be 'significance' in the game, then it's going to start with the DM shoving it down our throats - as opposed to, for example, 'fun.'  Rather than having great fun slaughtering a king in his bed, followed by a deluge of drinking, debauchery and smiting our enemies until there's a land-sweeping battle-royale ending in a do-or-die one-on-one contest (or a series of them, where each player gets his or her moment in the sun), we're stuck with a series of propriety lessons soaked with witches pointing fingers repeating "Bad, bad, bad, bad . . ."

Because most people who put on Shakespeare or think of Shakespeare forget completely that long before it became the stuff with which we torture high school students, Shakespeare was F-U-N fun.  The groundlings shouted mockery and abuse from the pit while Lady Macbeth showed off her bloomers and spat at them, as the upper classes tittered with their hands under each others' kirtles and petticoats.  Shakespeare was a raucous, drunken, bloody, moiling, sexy farce-driven festival of greed, chivalry and sport, so popular that not only do we remember the plays, we built an entire industry of story-telling around the principles so launched in that century.  It's only dry today because we are sermonized to concentrate on the prude lesson that's given and not upon the cold-blooded sound of Macbeth severing the heads from the bodies of Macduff's wife and children.  We're reminded about how "senseless" it is - we're not supposed to remember how passionate it is.

When DMs take it into their heads to create significance, they make the mistake of climbing into the pulpit and not the charnal pit.  We don't listen at the pulpit to enjoy ourselves, we do it to redeem ourselves from the ecstatic revelry of the night before.  The voice on the pulpit talks at us; the crowd we know and love talks with us.  We don't play D&D on Sunday morning: we play it on Saturday night.

This is worth remembering.


7 comments:

Ozymandias said...

Makes me wanna see a Shakespeare play done in the context of the time, complete with a raucous, debauched audience.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I searched for a copy of this scene from Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Cyrano de Bergerac from 1990 that had English subtitles. No luck. The best I could do was the start of the scene just after Bergerac has shouted from the audience that a very poor actor should flee the stage - as Bergerac has threatened to kill him if he ever treads the boards again.

It is in French. I link it to show how theatre worked in Bergerac's 17th century (Bergerac exists in my world, as he was alive in 1650). The audience moves about freely: the commoners stand side by side with the rich, even during the sword fight that progresses outside. While the commoners do not sit in the boxes, they can hear every word spoken and are free to laugh (so long as it is done from a distance and not in some rich fellow's face). The actors yell at the audience from the stage, the audience does the same in reverse.

It is a glorious film; if you haven't seen it, do: with subtitles, if you need them (I do).

JB said...

[ha! I've seen that particular Cyrano film at least half-a-dozen times. Love it]

You didn't say (or if you did, I can't find it after reading this post twice) whether, upon consideration, you felt your session had contained significance. You did say it was a "serious" session...does that equate?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hm, hadn't thought that wasn't clear, JB.

Did not mean that we considered if the sessions possessed significance, but rather what the significance was and shape it took. I meant to convey the presumption that the significance had to be there for us to consider it.

Tim said...

I read Cyrano in my high school French class and loved it for that emotionality and liveliness.
I think too that those memories of grand successes and failures are the smooth, cohesive Shakespearean scenes: when your players describe their epic victory to another, they've got a full story to work from. D&D places you at the improvisational ground zero, where it's not yet clear how things will end or where they will go, and in that – once you have commitment – there's an incredible significance (very much in that obsolete sense of "energy") and passion that comes into being.

JB said...

@ Alexis:

Got it!
: )

Maxwell Joslyn said...

@ Ozymandias:

I had the fortune to see an "original pronunciation and original bawdiness" performance of Much Ado About Nothing as a college freshman, directed by a theater senior who'd just finished their thesis on the topic. It was nothing short of hysterical.