Thursday, March 27, 2014

Doomed to Fall Short

Given yesterday's post, and the concurrent opinions expressed there that reality in combat is something unobtainable - and in my opinion unwanted - from a role-playing game, why does this particular will o'wisp continue to seize the designs of rule makers?  What is this certainty that if a game is more real, the game will be made better?

Aesthetics.  Despite the cold calculation in strategy or tactics that we may wish for, those alone will not create a compelling game.  The game must be beautiful.  It must evoke emotion.  In the mind's eye of combat, there is something precious in the thrill of holding a mace, spying the enemy's skull, and picturing the swinging of that mace into that skull and producing a spray of jewelled red droplets, meat and bone.  The crunch as the brain-case gives way, the escape of air from the lungs of the victim as he sinks beneath our gaze, and our own voice screaming at our men to "get them."  Our enemy, now a carcass, drops lifelessly at our feet and we leap over it's cold meat, swinging the soaked mace and waving our forces on, on to further killing and decimation.

There is a powerful urge to somehow codify the above description into a rule set, so that we will know where the mace hits, we will know how bloody the mace is, and so we will somehow know how precisely destructive we are.  The rule set will tell us, we hope, how damaged our armor is, how sore our arm has grown over the last hour with hit upon hit, how hard our heart pounds in our chest and how loud is the rush of blood in our ears.  Somehow, we think that if only we can make a rule set cover the various angles and elements of battle a little more grittily, a little more down to the nap as it were, we'll feel what is happening a bit more strongly, and we won't be as displaced from our characters - characters that are only sheets of paper with graphite strokes, only collections of numbers and notes, nothing more than a desperate attempt to codify life, and make it something that we can see in our minds.

Though we try, however, a rule set will not do this.

This knowing ... this deep, profound desire to know and feel and grasp with our minds a greater context than what we are limited to by being in a room with coke and cheezies on the table, is an age-old ideal, going far back in the history of creation, imagination and aesthetics.  Pygmalion was nothing more than a sculptor who dreamed so hard of his own work coming to life that for him it did, only to bring him much sorrow and misery in the process.  This has been a constant theme in the pursuit of fetish ... that we must be careful what we wish for.  No battle veteran of real war would wish to return to the moment of battle - but we adore the idea of Conan, eyes shining in the moment of bloodlust, unconcerned with the visions of that horror-scape and uncrippled with the terror that descends from actual experience.  Conan has no PTSD.  We understand that.  We don't want reality.  Reality would produce Pygmalion's misery.  We want Conan's fantasy, where none of the principles of reality exist.  Only ... we don't know how to make it happen.

We've tried descriptions.  We've tried adding images to our games.  We've tried miniatures, with paint and cool action-like stances.  We've tried costumes at the table.  We've tried lighting and theme music and speaking in old timey voices, with old timey sentence structure.  We're out of things to try.  All we have left is the dim hope that somehow a rule set will accomplish what imagination and desire and fetishistic compulsion cannot.  But like all the rest, it is a will o'wisp.

I wonder, though, how it is that we don't do a few simple things at the table to reduce some of the noise. That fellow working for months on his rule set to make combat more believable is completely unaware of the player at his table wearing a Michael Jackson "THIS IS IT!" tee-shirt; or a Nebraska Huskers football jersey.  Or the sideways-turned New York Mets hat.  Those things, for some reason, are never named as spoilers for the 'reality' of what's happening.  Nor is the cluttered pig-sty of the apartment where the game is played, or the coke, or the cheezies.  It's interesting that in the quest for realism, there's no compulsion to drink only water and unpasteurized milk, eating unleavened bread and shredded meat (if there's an effort made with the victuals, it's always something alcoholic and often made by someone not good at fermenting mead).

Fact is, we're doomed to fall short of the fantasy.  Some people accept that.  They make do with what they have.  Others cannot accept it, they want something more, so they complain about the lack of realism, or the failure of the DM to 'capture' the full-force of the role-play, because they cannot do it on their own.  The fantasy can never be manufactured for the player unable to manufacture it for themselves.  It just isn't possible.  I cannot make you or any player feel the power of my fetish.  I can, at best, alter the environment, adjust the lamps and the 'feel,' but in the end the last long step towards belief is out of my hands.


What I'd like to see are descriptions of aesthetic woes, such as the tee-shirt the really annoying guy across from the reader was wearing, or the worst sort of places imaginable where you were forced to play, that destroyed visually the verisimilitude of the campaign.  Those stories would be good for a laugh.


Tim said...

You've opened my eyes on an issue I was struggling with in my own homebrew rulesets, where I would be constantly flipping between minimalistic and labyrinthine in terms of combat information. Thank you.

It seems then that rather than adding these minute aesthetic details to our work, that we instead try to engage the players insofar as they are drawn by the story and pathos of the world. Wrapped up in the significance of their actions, not the gory details.

JDJarvis said...

Playing in the (large) bedroom of a grown man living in his parents basement with a mt dew bottle of urine (sure it was sealed but WTF) kinda killed the mood for me once.
As for immersion and visual extravaganza RPG players aren't recreationists they are game players, no one expects monopoly players to eat caviar and swill champagne while rolling the dice.
There is a drive for "more" and "better" that is always going to come up short.

Michael Julius said...

Every couple of years the university medical school would bring their state of the art 'Annie'. It moved its chest in respiration, simulated heart rhythms, and 'realistic' oral anatomy. Every innovation took us further from what it was trying to model.

Our best medic training was using our old dirty mannequins and racing each other, intubating them as quickly as possible with perfect form.

For me, that's why really crunchy systems and 'realism' in RPGs is just so much bullshit.