Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Sexless Grail

To write this post, I struggled to find some online version of the story of Parzival as told by the 13th century author Wolfgang von Eschenbach ... but that proved unexpectedly difficult.  The original story is written in medieval German.  Those translations I could find were either excessively worded poetry (longer than the original text) or children's simplifications.  Fact is, because I've never read the German (don't speak German) I've never actually "read" Parzival.  At best, I'm familiar with the story.

It's long, and wikipedia covers it fairly well.  It's fundamentally misogynistic, but in an odd way; the knight Parzival adores, loves, aches for his lady love, Kondwiramur ... but this intense worship steals him away from the Grail, which is the true adoration of God and all that is good, right and proper.  Well, this is the 13th century, and this sort of attitude towards women held a lot of power among males who tried to believe camaraderie with one's fellows and perfect worship of the Supreme Being were higher ideals than raw, unrelenting sex.  Not that there is any actual sex in Parzival.

There are many motifs, however, of women controlling or guiding Parzival's 'nature,' however, and the keen eye can see all the erectile symbolism, the collar around the male's throat, the mystical weaving of spells that we know all women possess, etc., etc.  You can miss all that if you haven't had extensive training in literary deconstruction - and you're all the better for it, believe me.  Deconstruction is only good if you want to write for a living, or if you want to be terribly depressing at parties.

The specific part of Parzival that I want to talk about is a famous passage.  Parzival is passing through the woods when a hawk hits a goose above him, and three drops of blood hit the snow next to Parzival's horse.  The knight looks at the snow and sees Kondwiramur - her cheeks, her white skin, her beautiful ruby lips ... and Parzival's heart yearns for the woman he's left behind.  He aches, his heart beats in his chest, he goes weak in the knees, he can't take his eyes off the snow as he drifts into a 'love trance' thinking of his lady love.

As he does this, his lance dips forward, and he's seen by a retainer in King Arthur's party, who is moving through the same wood.  The lance being dipped forward, the retainer rushes back and tells the King's party that there's a knight looking for a fight (the sign of the lance giving the intent).  Sir Sagramor puts up his hand (colloquially speaking) and goes Oh, Oh!  Let me fight him.  Arthur's got other things on his mind, but he says all right, but be back by suppertime (still colloquial).

Sagramor goes and finds Parzival and can't help noticing that he's rather distracted.  So Sagramor says, "Come on, have at ye!" and attacks ... and before time takes to tell, with one blow Parzival lays him out, never taking his eyes off the imagined image of Konwiramur in the snow.

Sagramor staggers back with his tail between his legs, and upon hearing the story Arthur's step-brother Kay shouts, Me! Me!  So Arthur lets Kay have a try.

Kay is a great blustering self-important asshole, and when he finds Parzival he insults him and cries, "I'll wake you up!"  And its the same scene all over again, except that Parzival kills Kay's horse and leaves Kay in a terrible state, so much so that Kay has to stay in his tent in pain after having to walk back.  All the while, Parzival never takes his eye off the snow.

The next to have a go is Gawain, who warned by Arthur to be careful, approaches Parzival in a very different manner.  Gawain recognizes him, calls out as a comrade (note the 'we are men' angle) and then takes note what's really going on.  So he lays a cloak upon the snow, Parzival immediately falls out the trance and says, "What's happened, what's going on?"  And Gawain has to explain how he's whacked two knights already, though Parzival has no memory of it.

There are other things going on - the whole Kondwiramur in the snow thing is part of a spell cast by Kondwiramur's mother, to entrap Parzival's heart and make him a slave to love, and so on, getting back to the general theme.  For myself, I don't really care about the glory of mythical deities, but I suppose there's something to be said about player characters throwing off the yoke of sex and giving obeisance to Gods and Demi-gods.

Nothing good, but something.

Now, I've gone through the exercise of getting across this story because I want to talk about love in D&D, and especially this whole 'love trance' thing.  Love is a powerful force, either for good or bad, as evidenced in the tale above.  Yes, it may not be as 'important' as the Holy Grail, which Parzival seeks - depending on how you define importance - but it is a damn sight stronger than a couple of mere knights.  There is a spectacular cult of passion that runs through most of human history, the better known since the 12th and 13th centuries (and the rise of romance), in which men of all varieties have rushed around getting themselves hacked to pieces over the erotic expectation of getting a LOT more than a pretty scarf to wrap around their uppers.  We may think that that knights and aristocratic ladies did not get it on in the bushes after a joust, but we also know there were a helluva a lot of bastard kings and other unwanted children running about the age, and they didn't pop out of bellies by chance.  Outwardly, it may have been for favors, but it takes an idiot to think that favors were as far as it went.

However, none of this is part of D&D.  You may be rushing around saving princesses, but after the fact its no touchy touchy.  Obviously there's the odd DM promoting the sweaty nasty after a good day's dragon killing, but by and large the consensus is that sex is not the mandate in D&D, and shouldn't get rubbed in the faces of people who are squeamish and all.

We can guess why there's no page about sex, love and the virtues of 14th century rape in the Dungeon Master's compendium of whatever version of the game you will.  For one thing, Gygax and Arneson were creatures of the 50s and 60s ... and though publishing their little books in the 1970s, it's pretty clear from the content that we're not talking about a couple of guys dropping into Plato's Retreat or anywhere near Stonewall in New York.  There may have been a sexual revolution going on at the time, but the Happy Hooker did not have any D&D questions to answer in her Penthouse column.

Now, I'm 48, and I can tell you that I have loved.  I have loved deeply and passionately, and I can certainly attest to the fact that when I am not writing here online or actually working at my job, there's a pretty good chance that I'm in some dark, sweaty place having a very good time without D&D on my mind.  I think this has to be true also for all the husbands and wives who read the various blogs about the game.  We are none of us ignorant in the ways of love, or the way that it will drive us to doing impossible, frightening things, or the way it keeps us chained happily to the work-desk and the bank mortgage.  We are all of us familiar with love.  Some of us are still in love with it, some of us are angrily in thrall to it and some of us stare achingly at the snow wondering why we don't have it now.

So IF we're going to talk about magic, and IF we're going to talk about fantasy, isn't it just a little boneheaded to think that none of that has anything to do with LOVE?  Or is there a special castration ceremony we've been meant to undergo upon entering a convention or sitting at the gaming table?  If there is, then why isn't THAT in the books, hum?

It seems to me the above tale of Parzival gives a hint of what kind of powers love might impart to characters willing to risk all.  Giving an opportunity for players to go to that place in the fantasy forum, where reconciling their nerdish nature with the nympholific, might shake loose some of the boundries of your game ... except that ...

Well, you should be able to see the problem at once.  THERE ARE NO RULES.  Nix, naught, nothing, not a thing to make the least suggestion of how you fall in love, how this love manifests, what should inspire your character or what the effects are.  Beyond the silly tropes of television, where every father hates every prospective mate, what real impact does the character's love have upon the family, searching for a really good sire to offspring.  Let's face it, player characters would make really good sires ... high ability stats and all that.  How about some serious bling for proving love and how about some serious positive consequences for the player willing to act greenly in front of the other players?  How about a grown up stance that says, this is my character and he by the bloodstains on Cthulhu's lips wants a goddamn good woman to have sex with.

I'm not saying that the participants should step into yon bedroom for twenty minutes and consummate a player character relationship ... but damn, what a running that would be!  Eh?  Anyone?

All I'm asking for is a little thought on the matter.  A little less digging of toes in the sand.  A recognition that you have testicles and genitalia, and that they transform interestingly now and then.  Contemplate it.  Give it some consideration.  Muse upon it.

You can go seek Parzival's sexless grail afterwards.


  1. It's a touchy subject, and not just because of ridiculous, hypocritical attitudes towards sex.

    As you've pointed out a number of times, players don't like to relinquish control of their characters. they're perfectly fine with an npc falling over themselves to jump the bones of their 16 charisma rogue, but when they encounter some fecund beauty with an 18 charisma, well, they may fuck her, but they sure as hell are going to chafe if she wants them to stick around in the morning, particularly if they know as players she's using them as pawns, and _particularly_ if the DM tries to enforce their behavior. Most of the time, PCs are treated as emotionless golems, with no expectation for consistency or illogical behavior.

    Of course, there are the other type of players. The ones who just want to be "In character" You've pointed out several times the pitfalls with this type of player, how they rarely put their head up to experience the rest of the wold their character is living in. These players may "fall in love" with the first available npc that shows some interest, but this sort of player is very unlikely to step out of their own mores, so you'll either have no consummation, or the game will devolve into a cheap romance novel for that player.

  2. Have you had a chance to read any of the Icelandic sagas? There are some interesting descriptions of love as sorcery in Njal's saga, and the Saga of the people of Laxardal. Particularly in reference to Queen Gunnhild of Norway

    If you haven't, I'd highly recommend that you check them out, they seem right up your alley.

  3. This is why I say there has to be some kind of 'practical' value to falling in love.

    But there are no rules.

  4. So... make some rules!

    But I'd be against it.

    For example, let's say you create a rule requiring you to, essentially, roll a saving throw or you "fall in love". When you're "in love" -- requited or not -- there are restrictions on your interactions with that character.

    But you seem to be more interested in talking about sex than love?

  5. Is there a difference? LOL.

    Yes, rules. Here, let me pull some out of my ass that won't work because I've had two days to think about it and no feedback.

    Oh, wait ... perhaps I should write some kind of post so people could give me ideas!

    I'm actually not interested in binding people's arms by making them love people. My bigger point would be, what makes people rush after treasure? Power + Opportunity.

    So rather than FORCE people to be in love, what bonuses/abilities could we give them that would make them lust after love the way they lust after treasure? The whole point in my writing out the tale was to show that Parsival is one mean motherfucker when he's in love; name me a player who wouldn't want some of that mojo.

  6. I can guarantee you some social bonuses would be appropriate. Like 'threatens your loved ones with their actions' or 'knows loved one would disapprove'.

    Perhaps some kind of morale bonus for combat related to 'protecting loved ones.' A good reason for some of the propaganda out there.

    I mean, it doesn't line up with the Parzival example quite, but then again, we already said that was a spell to start with.

  7. I agree that incentivizing love would be a better way to include it in RPGs, rather than turning it into a low-level charm person spell.

    Although one could argue that you already do have a system in place -- the Seduction card in Conflict!

  8. This is an interesting one.

    I was just about to churn out something I thought was super-enlightening, but then noted the "unresearched, pulled from ass" above, and decided to mull it for a bit.

    Suffice to say the idea was thus:

    What if we took Stats as a measurement not just of ability, but of values?

    We could assume the bond of love was stronger if more of those values aligned, and assign an increasing "Love Spell" based on those ideals.

    The idea being that exceptional people would look for exceptional matches, and that Charisma counts for a lot, but not everything, in choosing a mate.

    I imagined professional matchmakers trying to work out the maximum potential from each possible mate, imagined "bad matches" being a more severe term, etc.

    If this still seems a bit long, then you might begin to understand why I opted NOT to send the whole shebang in one go.

    I'd love to know if any part of this intrigues, or if there are holes I've obviously missed.

  9. To open another can of worms...

    If you think some male players have a problem playing female characters, just wait until you tell them that, by the way, Ragnor the Barbarian is gay.

    And then are you going to also get into, for lack of a better term, kink -- is your character attracted to dominant women? little boys? sheep?

    Maybe he's really into BDSM, and has a +2 saving throw to resist torture because he likes it.

    But since you allow players to pick their character's gender, I'm assuming you also are allowing players to pick their character's sexual orientation... and any accompanying fetishes.

    Which means we might as well go ahead and assume that all male characters are straight and all female characters are lesbians. ;)

  10. Sex in my early games went along the lines of "roll to see if you get laid." Because 6I adolescent dudes were not about to role play that out. Love was even more awkward. Read into that all you want. I can remember a character getting married once, because he got the farmer's daughter pregnant.

    In my current games, I see my players actively avoiding romance. As typical adventurers, they are nomadic almost by necessity. Marriage tends to entail settling down, children almost certainly do. Typically, romance only really crops up when characters are thinking of retiring.

    As for love rules, I'm not sure what, if any should be drafted. I see love as more as a role playing tool, but then again, I'm one of _those_ people.

  11. Watching the Guns of Navarre revenge comes to mind as an interesting topic for love.


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