Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The End of Wholesomeness

I don't subscribe to the boy's version of D&D ... the notion that "We're on an adventure!" and that it's full of "fantastical and heroic" things.  I don't find D&D to be either mysterious or arcane.  The word "magic" is not magical for me.  I have never, ever, thought of D&D as a "game of the imagination" — though I know others think of it that way and occasionally I've been willing to pander.  I don't ascribe the word "imagination" to it, because in essence all things are of the imagination, including paying my bills, expecting the local safeway to carry enough Oikos yogurt in the form I like this week and the existence of Bulgaria — which so far I've been forced to accept on the word of other people.  Since I think constantly — a habit which others do not seem to acquire — I use my imagination constantly, applied to every part of my creative and interpretive existence.  I don't see exactly why I should think D&D is special in some way.  I use the same brain for it that I use for everything else.

The colloquial meaning of "magical," distinct from its application to witchcraft and spellcasting, is to see things as "beautiful or delightful in such a was as to seem removed from everyday life."  I suppose I would see actual magic and spells as that, but that's not how I see the long lists of written spells, items and abilities in D&D.  I see these things as cold, hard, functional metrics.  They work in a specific, practical manner relating to the rules of the game.  I get no fuzzy feeling in my gut, no lightheaded giddiness in my goiter when these things get used.  This is not to say the spells are lackluster or boring, but to explain that I think of them with the same interested presumption as an immunologist has talking of viruses infecting liver cells in such and such a manner.  Completely fascinating; zero sense of the supernatural.  It all seems very day to day for me.

There's nothing "arcane" in a game system that's been in existence just forty years.  There's nothing mysterious when everything is written out, explained and prescribed.  I may concoct a series of events that will enact the literary structure of a "mystery" for the players — but surely they know I have all the answers and that the thing itself is hardly mysterious in the sense of whatever happened to Amelia Earhart.  The game is as enigmatic as a magic trick; it's not a real mystery anymore than it's real magic.

Likewise, there's nothing "heroic" about sitting around a table and pretending to sacrifice a player character that doesn't exist; or in pretending to save a pretend princess.  These pretentious claims to having achieved something of great excellence and merit seems very silly and adolescent to me; of course, once I too indulged in such notions, but I'm no longer 15 and I see no reason to wax jejune about something that's long gone.

As such, I just don't relate to D&D on these notions ... the very notions that are hammered daily on blogs and press releases with relentless banality, often using the same phrases so often as to become saws and old chestnuts.  I hear someone cry excitedly, "On to adventure!" and think either that they're clinging desperately to their youthful innocence or that they're desperate for attention.  Whichever it is, I can't help rolling my eyes.

I'm experienced.  Best to think of me as the grizzled sarjeant doing his seventh tour of Vietnam, whose well past posturing.  I don't give a fuck about all that.  "This is a war, soldiers; get yourselves together, get on the bounce, quit griping and mind that you live 'til the end of day.  I don't wanna see no heroes, I want you head outta your asses and none of you do something stupid.  Let's get on with it."

Naturally, this doesn't fly well with a lot of players.  They want warm and fuzzy.  They worship a string of fantasy writers who churn fantasy content on a grade 6 to 12 level and that's just fine.  They don't want to be soldiers.  They don't want to play in a world where politics, nature, cruelty and indifference are vastly more powerful than magic — because, in my world, magic is a tool, not a force.  No matter what you have, no matter what you can do ... there are always others who can do exactly as much or more.  And if they're organized and you're not ... well, you can kiss ass or kiss dirt.  That's up to you.

I think the most interesting thing about D&D is the game world.  A thing that's staggeringly complex, huge, momentarily intimate, funny, absurd, unexpected and outlandishly dangerous ... everything that exists in the real world, in fact.  To be clear, what I like about D&D is that it happens in the real world, between me and my friends — and that this dynamic allows me to create all the happenstances of the world and watch the players fight, survive, fail or succeed according to their wherewithal, intuition and pluck.  Those things are real ... and infinitely more exciting and challenging than silly knights and princesses.

Let me put it another way.  A long time ago, Hollywood used to make westerns where everyone wore a clean shirt, where all the men were clean-shaven and the women were honourable.  These westerns surrounded simple story lines where a stalwart, decent sheriff protected a town with decent townfolk, or a group of heroes rode into a town to rescue it from a group of bad guys.  The line between "good" and "bad" was just as sharp as a D&D alignment chart ... and I'll grant, some of these movies are quite good; I can give you a list, if you like.  But they were all ruled over by something called the Hays' Code ... a set of moral principles that have been dead and gone from film for nigh 50 years now.

But those same moral principles are upheld and STANDARD among D&D producers and players, because it's perceived that children are playing this game ... and we mustn't invent anything that might bother the children.

In the late 60s, starting with Spanish, Italian and other European directors, who didn't give a shit about the Hays' Code, westerns started getting made where the "good" guys and the "bad" guys became harder and harder to tell apart.  Everyone had beards, most of them didn't wash, the women grew to be as vicious and vindictive as the men.  The protagonists in many of these films were brutal, cold-hearted murderers ... and the films became less and less about defeating the bad guys, and more about what it meant to be alive during the period.  The characters climbed down off their pedestals and became human.  And while many, many people hated these movies, and what it did to an iconic American fable, the truth is these movies were better.  They weren't fantasy.  They were real.  Watching them, we got the sense of what it was really like to carry a gun, and be shot, or hanged, or live in those difficult, brutal times.

That change didn't just reveal itself in the western, either.  It appeared in cop films as well; and in movies about relationships and lovers.  The change had happened a decade earlier in books, investing high-quality literary works with pulp fiction themes, enabling us to investigate ideas like abortion, racism, rape, institutional slavery, crime, genocide ... all subjects that were banned in my parent's time and had to fight for their right to be found on bookshelves.

This is where I want to be.  I'm not interested in running Gunsmoke and Bonanza.  My characters do not adhere to the boundaries of 1950s film noir.  I am not running the Children's Hour.  I'm running an adult game, for adults.  With adult themes and adult situations.  My game world is not imaginary, it's industrial.  It's not heroic, it's hubristic.  It's full of people who want to give aid and build support, organizing together for protection and mutual support; because the world is not just dangerous for the players, it's dangerous for everyone.

The people of my game world are the hardest puzzle for old-school Hays' Code players to interpret ... because, like a 1950s western, they think everyone who isn't a bad guy or a good guy is a stock character.

And they are so, so wrong about that. 

1 comment:

  1. The last two 'graphs pretty much sums up the quajillion or so words I've been reading (and re-reading) on this blog (and "Higher ..." and both wiki's) for the last 6-8 weeks!


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