Sunday, December 03, 2006

Original, but long

I was flipping through my university's weekly student newspaper, when to my astonishment I saw a link to the Gaming Philosopher in an article about blogs by people who study or work at Leiden University. You can read it here.


Reflections on roleplaying games, philosophy and (fantasy-)literature. For instance the question: are roleplaying games a form of art? Original stuff, but the articles are somewhat long for internet.

I guess it is true that the articles are too long for internet, but I consider that to be internet's problem, not mine. ;)

Saturday, October 28, 2006

[Fantasy] The Storyteller and Mrs. Brown

Today, I wish to investigate a connection between Benjamin's Der Erzähler and Ursula K. Le Guin's Science Fiction and Mrs Brown. (The latter essay can be found, like From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in her non-fiction collection The Language of the Night.) One of the theme's in Benjamin's essay is the difference between the story and the novel; the theme of Le Guin's essay is the possibility of SF (and fantasy) novels. Together, they may get us a bit closer to an answer to the question: what is the relation of the novel, and of the story, to fantasy?

Le Guin quotes Virginia Woolf, who is musing upon her meeting an old lady ("mrs. Brown") in the train:

I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character - not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved. [...] The great novelists have brought us to see whatever they wish us to see through some character. Otherwise they would not be novelists, but poets, historians, or pamphleteers.

Le Guin accepts this definition of the novel, and wonders whether the writer of science fiction can hope to sit across Mrs. Bloom; or whether he is doomed to be "trapped for good inside our great, gleaming spaceships", which are capable of "containing heroic captains in black and silver uniforms, and second officers with peculiar ears, and mad scientists with nubile daughters", and indeed are capable of anything at all "except one thing: they cannot contain Mrs. Brown". Can a writer of science fiction ever write a novel? And of course, with suitable substitutions ("heroic princes in gold and adamantine armour, and secretive sorcerers with pointy ears, and mad necromancers with nubile daughters" - the overlap between SF and fantasy being the nubile daughter, universal object of the male imagination) we can ask the same question of fantasy writers.

Yes, says Le Guin; but for a long time it didn't look like it. Here is an interesting characterisation of the SF literature of the 30's and the 40's:

The humanity of the astronaut [a typical protagonist] is a liability, a weakness, irrelevant to his mission. As astronaut, he is not a being: he is an act. It is the act that counts. We are in the age of Science where nothing is. None of the scientists, none of the philosophers, can say what anything or anyone is. They can only say, accurately, beautifully, what it does. The age of Technology; of Behaviorism; the age of the Act.

I doubt, very much, that the 'Literature of the Act' became popular because we had entered the 'Age of the Act'. It seems to me that we have entered the 'Age of no Act'; the age wherein it has become nigh impossible to act; that is, to take meaningful actions directed towards a clear and important goal. The current popularity of heroic high fantasy can be explained, I submit, by the fact that people wish to be transported to a world where (a) good and evil are meaningful choices, easily seperated; and (b) individual action matters, decides everything. Action is our great wish.

But that is a side-remark: Le Guin evidently uses 'action' to denote the outward aspect of our acts only; it might have been clearer if she had said 'behaviour'. But we understand what she means.

Now, says Le Guin, around 1950, Mrs. Brown suddenly appeared, in the most improbable place: fantasy. (Mrs. Brown is going to be Frodo Baggins, together with Gollum, Sam, Smeagol and Bilbo; Tolkien having to pull her into pieces in order to tell an epic.) This is improbable because:

If any field of literature has no, can no Mrs. Brown in it, it is fantasy - straight fantasy, the modern descendant of folktale, fairy tale, and myth. These genres deal with archetypes, not with characters. The very essence of Elfland is that Mrs. Brown can't get there - not unless she is changed, changed utterly, into an old mad witch, or a fair young princess, or a loathly Worm.

But it still happened; and it goes on happening. According to Le Guin, this is a good thing:

Should a book of science fiction be a novel? [...] I have already said yes. I have already admitted that this, to me, is the whole point. That no other form of prose, to me, is a patch on the novel. That if we can't catch Mrs. Brown, if only for a moment, then all the beautiful faster-than-light ships, all the irony and imagination and knowledge and invention are in vain; we might as well write tracts or comic books, for we will never be real artists.

Le Guin considers one objection to this idea, namely that the novel is dead because there are no characters anymore, only "classes, masses, statistics, body counts, subscription lists, insurance risks, consumers, randomly selected samples, and victims". Or: "There are moving pictures of a woman in various places with various other persons. They do not add up to anything so solid, so fixed, so Victorian or medieval as a 'character' or even a personality."

Well, says Le Guin, of that is so, then why keep writing? "What good are all the objects in the universe, if there is no subject?" And thus we should either give up all hope, or write novels.

This is a very strange conclusion. Does not Le Guin's own description of fantasy show that a dichotomy between the novel and behaviourism is false? Harking back to Benjamin, we can see that there is at least the story, as a companion to the novel. The story does not have the novels characters; among its prime characteristics is that there is no psychology in it, whereas the novel is almost defined by psychological attention to the characters. But the story is not behaviourist either; its founding category, experience, is anti-behaviourist; its openness to interpretations is anti-behaviourist.

Can one write fantasy novels? Can one still, today, write fantasy stories? Or is modern fantasy, as a relevant art, possible only as a mixture of these two; or as something totally new? Or is artistic fantasy doomed to expose its own earlier promises, to gainsay all the promises made to us in happier times? (As M. John Harrison's Viriconium books so excellently do.)

To be continued.

Classes vs. Archetypes

A short observation.

What makes virtually every fantasy roleplaying game have a feel so unlike fairy tales, is that roleplaying games mainly relied on classes, whereas fairy tales rely on archetypes.

A character's archetype defines his place in the narrative; most importantly, his relation towards other characters. The handsome prince, for example, is (1) the object of desire for the maid, (2) the bane of the dragon, (3) the intended victim of betrayal by his younger brother; and so forth. How he will defeat the dragon, thwart his brother and marry the maid - whether by force, intellect or guile - remains an open question until the tale is told.

A character's class, on the other hand, defines his capabilities and dominant mode of action. The fighter is good with weapons; will attempt to defeat the dragon and the brother by chopping them into little bits; and will show off his biceps in orhter to woo the maid. What he will do, and what relations the other characters have to him remains an open question until the tale is told.

What are the virtues and vices of archetypes and classes respectively? I have a hunch that archetypes are more useful in serious stories, but I cannot yet make this precise.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Elitism, and RPGs as Art

I have been planning to respond to John McLintock's Roleplaying as art? Not for me for a long time, and I'm finally getting round to it. McLintock's post infuriated me when I first read it - not because I get angry at people who think that roleplaying is not an art, but because of its rhetorical use of the word 'elitist', and its attempt to discredit art.

Let me make an important point right here at the start: the question whether RPGs are art is meaningless, just as meaningless as the question whether painting is art. Is there a hidden essence of RPGs or of painting, that may turn out to be 'art' or to be something else? Of course not. Rather, we can paint with many different goals; and we can look at paintings with many different 'eyes'. We can paint for fun, and judge the painting by how much fun we had making it. We can paint to express our hidden trauma's, and have our psycho-analyst look at the painting as a symptom the meaning of which has to be discovered. Or we can paint in order to create beauty, and use aesthetic criteria to judge the painting. In the latter case, painting has not suddenly become art, but we are judging our painting as art.

With RPGs it is the same. RPGs are not art; but we can judge both the game books and the actual play sessions using the criteria of art, and thus view RPGs as art. How could John McLintock deny this? With a very strong claim:

My fundamental objection to the idea that roleplaying is art is that I believe roleplaying games to be part of a cultural development that has undermined the very concept of 'art'.

The very concept of art has been undermined. That is a discouraging, even catastrophic revelation! How did this undermining come to pass?

What I mean here is this: it is pretty difficult to avoid the conclusion that the concept of 'art' has always existed in contrast to its other- ie. 'high' culture versus 'low' culture, and that this contrast has always served a priori to elevate the so-called 'art' above whatever it was being contrasted against. That is to say: the very idea of 'art' is that there is a realm of creative expression which- by its very nature- is more sublime and somehow more insightful than anything from outside that realm.

On the surface, this is true. When we judge something as art, we judge it; we apply criteria; and thus we make a distinction between low and high. (Whether we call the high 'good art' and the low 'bad art', or the high 'art' and the low 'not art' is a merely linguistic matter. I will use the first convention.)

But of course, we make such distinctions all the time, and not only in the context of art. So I gather that McLintock means something deeper: artistic criteria are not merely used to seperate good and bad art, but they are supposed to divide the sublime from the not-sublime; they are the most important criteria there are.

The idea that good art is the highest thing there is can be defended, I suppose. I, personally, would be willing to argue that in general good art is better than good fun. But I don't see how this conception that artistic criteria are the most important criteria is inherent in the concept of art itself. It seems to be something external, something tagged on to the idea of art. There is the idea of art, and then there is the idea that art is the highest good - McLintock conflates the two.

But let us go back to that tragic history of undermining.

I would like to suggest that, if there is one thing that has been proved by the trajectory of modern art, then it is that the concept of 'art' to which I have pointed is completely and utterly bankrupt, because the world has quite simply passed it by. [...] What I believe this development represents is the exhaustion of the classic- high bourgeois- concept of 'art' in the face of a culture predicated on industrial mass production whose immeasurable richness simply cannot be embraced via the cultural concepts of an fundamentally elitist intellectual apparatus of essentially pre-industrial origins. [...] '[A]rt' is dead because it's all largely a matter of personal taste now.

This is not immediately enlightening. In what sense are artistic criteria founded on a "fundamentally elitist intellectual apparatus of essentially pre-industrial origins"? Apparently, at least something that is contradicted by everything now being a matter of personal taste. And, sure enough, if everything is a matter of personal tast, then there can be no artistic criteria - there can be no criteria at all, but only the whim of the moment.

Reading the rest of the article, one sees that the thesis is never developed with sufficient clarity, but one gets the impression that the most important word is elitist. What, if I read McLintock rightly, according to him is so great about the destruction of the concept of art is that (1) an elitist conception of the sublime has been abolished; (2) this conception has been replaced by a consumerist conception of the sublime, articulated by the masses, which (3) boils down to "it's all largely a matter of personal taste now"; and (4), in the case of roleplaying games at least, this conception equates the sublime with the fun.

How absolutely horrible.

Perhaps Harry Potter is 'fun' to read, but can anyone seriously consider it to be a better book than Paradise Lost? Should our high schools and universities teach their students Dan Brown or Shakespeare? Britney Spears or Bach?

A culture in which fun is the measure of all things is a culture without soul, a culture in which people do not strive for excellence of character and for wisdom. A culture in which all standards have been abolished and everything is left to the subjective sense of enjoyment is a culture which has lost its greatness - and it will soon enough rue it.

You can call me elitist. If being elitist means to say that yes, there are standards, valuable standards that you too should learn to apply and appreciate, which divide Shakespeare, Milton, Proust and Kafka from Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling and who knows what other crappy writers - then I am elitist, and proud of it.

But I don't think 'elitist' is the right word here. You can find Shakespeare and Milton on the web, for free, available to everyone. That's not elitist; it's as anti-elitist as it gets. Maybe they are hard to read, but that's what schools are for, and dictionaries, and if you persevere you too can penetrate them. You'll be enriched by it. Everyone will be enriched by these texts that are available to everyone and able to speak to everyone - how less elitist can you become?

Or is 'elitist' the term that people use to label those that say that they should sacrifice some of their 'fun' in order to grow? Is it the resentment that the child that wants to watch television feels against his parents that tell him to do his homework, which is speaking to us through this word 'elitist'?

I do not wish to suggest to John McLintock is a child who'd rather play roleplaying games than do his homework. But we should realise that the mere fact that you and I like roleplaying games does not prove that it is a good thing that we spend our time playing them. (Unless it be in those moments we just need to relax.) I do think it is a good thing, and I have discussed some of the reasons for that in this blog; others you can think up yourself. That we like it, however, is not enough.

For luckily, there are standards other than 'liking'; standards that we can call on in order to rise above ourselves and reach that height of spirit which we can always strive for, if never quite attain.

Walter Benjamin, "Der Erzähler" (The Storyteller)

In the comments to my last post, Ian mentioned an essay by Walter Benjamin, Der Erzähler (The Storyteller). Benjamin was an important German philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century; he wrote on a wide range of topics, but his best-known work is probably his essay Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (it is widely cited as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility would have been a better translation).

Der Erzähler is a very rich and complex essay. It claims to be a reflection on the work of Nikolai Lesskow (in English known as Leskov, I believe); but it also touches on the difference beween a story (in the sense that a storyteller tells stories; Erzählung, not Geschichte) and a novel, on the communicability of experience, on the role of death in modern life, on the nature of wisdom, on the relation between man and nature, and on several other topics. All that in twenty-four pages. It certainly deserves close study, and for those who are interested, I have located an English translation in either PDF or html form. Those who prefer a physical book should look for the collection called Illuminations, or Illuminationen in German.

(The translation appears to be very bad, unfortunately. For instance, in IV "der dem Hörer Rat weiß" is translated as "who has counsel for his readers". But "Hörer" means "listeners", not "readers", and given the connection that Benjamin sees between story-telling and oral communication, this is significant. It is full of such mistakes. "Exemplarisch", for instance, should be translated "exemplary", not "by giving examples". In XIII, the translator makes a complete muddle of Benjamin's distinction between Gedächtnis, Eingedenken and Erinnerung. Can anyone tell me whether this online translation is the same one as that published in Illuminations? If not, I recommend the latter.)

What I would like to do in this blog post is give a summary of the essay. Given the essay's richness and denseness, this summary will be both too long and too short.

There will be some translation issues. The German Erfahrung and Erlebnis both seem to translate to 'experience'. But, at least as Benjamin uses them. the first is the experience of 'a man of experience', while the second is the experience of 'I experience pleasure'. Erfahrung is connected with wisdom, with understanding life and the world we live in; Erlebnis has more to do with particular sensations that do not build up a greater whole. Unless otherwise indicated, I'll use 'experience' for 'Erfahrung'.


The art of story-telling is dying out. With it also dies the human capability that is the essence of story-telling: trading experiences (Erfahrungen). The explanation for this is that experience itself is falling away.


Experience, passing from mouth to mouth, is the source from which all story-tellers have created. This is illustrated by the folk-notion of a story-teller: he is either someone who has travelled far, or someone who has learned the history of his own country. In both cases, experience not readily available to all is passed on by means of the story-teller.


Lesskow is at home in the distances both of space and time. He is a man of the earth, of practicality; his exemplar is the man who finds his way about the world without getting too deeply involved with it.


This connection with the practical is a natural one for a story-teller. A story always has its own practical use; the story-teller is someone who has counsel for his listeners. If "having counsel" sounds old-fashioned, this is because the communicability of experience is dwindling. We have no counsel, either for ourselves or for others.

Counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To catch up with this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story. Counsel, woven into the fabric of a lived life, is wisdom.

Story-telling is dying out because wisdom, the epic side of truth, is dying out.


The decline of the story is the rise of the novel. Where the story-teller takes his stories from lived experience, either his or that of others, to change it into experience for his listeners; there the novelist is the lonely individual, no longer able to speak exemplarily about his most important concerns, unable to give or receive counsel. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound despair/perplexity (Ratlosigkeit; literally 'counsellessness') of the living.


A new form of communication has arisen with the rise of the press (read: mass-media); this new form is information.* Information is antithetical to the story.

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. It is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation. It is left up to the reader to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.


[An example from Herodotus of a story without internal explanation is given.] The reason that the story is still food for thought is exactly that Herodotus explains nothing.


The stories that linger in memory are the ones free of psychological analysis. This process of memorising stories, however, is becoming less and less common, because the situation in which it most easily takes place becomes less and less common: boredom. It is the hearer entranced in the rhythm of labour - such as weaving or spinning - who most naturally assimilates the story. As craftsmanship dies out, so does the story.


The storyteller does not try to convey dry, impersonal information; he sinks the story into his own life, in order to bring it out of him again. Story-telling itself is not a liberal art, but a craft. The great story is therefore a carefully crafted thing, the "precious product of a long chain of causes similar to one another". It takes time, a lot of time, to create such a story; and this is why story-telling is dying out. "All these products of sustained, sacrificing effort are vanishing, and the time is past in which time did not matter. Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated."


If this is so, then there seems to be a connection between the decline of story-telling and the slow vanishing of the concept of eternity from how we conceive our lives. Indeed. The idea of eternity has its source in the idea of death. It is the vanishing of the idea of death that is linked to both the dying-out of story-telling and the dwindling of the communicability of experience.

Death used to be a central part of life; but it is so no longer. In modernity, the phenomenon of death was slowly removed from daily reality. (Who still lives in a house in which at some point someone has died?)

It is, however, characteristic that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life — and this is the stuff that stories are made of — first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. A the moment of death, suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story.


Death is the authority of the story-teller. In other words: his tales (Geschichten) refer back to the tale of nature (Naturgeschichte; both 'story of nature' and 'natural history'). [An extended example of a modern story-teller who embeds a personal life in the natural cycle of death and birth.]


Consider the difference between a historian and a chronicler. The historian writes history; the chronicler is the history-teller. The historian explains history; in the chronicle, the place of explanation is taken by interpretation, which is not concerned with an accurate concatenation of definite events, but with the way these are embedded in the great inscrutable course of the world.


Erinnerung (remembrance) takes different forms in the story and the novel. In the story, it appears as Gedächtnis (memory). The cardinal point for the unaffected listener to a story is to assure himself of the possibility of reproducing it. Memory (Gedächtnis) is the epic faculty par excellence. Only by virtue of a comprehensive memory can epic writing absorb the course of events on the one hand and, with the passing of these, make its peace with the power of death on the other.

In the novel, on the other hand, Erinnerung appears as Eingedenken (reminding?). The novel is about a particular character, event or situation; of which it 'reminds' us.


"Only in the novel are meaning and life, and thus the essential and the temporal, separated; one can almost say that the whole inner action of a novel is nothing else but a struggle against the power of time." Indeed, the 'meaning of life' is the centre around which the novel revolves. Here 'meaning of life' — there 'moral of the story': with these slogans novel and story confront each other, and from them the totally different historical co-ordinates of these art forms may be discerned.

There is no story for which the question as to how it continued would not be legitimate. The novelist, on the other hand, cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to an anticipated realization of the meaning of life by writing "Finis."


Moritz Heimann said: "A man who dies at 35, is at every point of his life a man who dies at 35." This is false, but merely because Heimann got the tenses wrong. The truth is: "At every point of his life, man who dies at 35, will have been a man who dies at 35." The meaning of a life only becomes apparent after death.

The reader of a novel looks for human beings from whom he derives the "meaning of life." Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death - the end of the novel - but preferably their actual one. The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger's fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.


The fairy-tales is the earliest step man has taken to free himself from the pressure of the mythical. The liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man. A mature man feels this complicity only occasionally, that is, when he is happy; but the child first meets it in fairy tales, and it makes him happy.


In the world of the story-teller, creatures are positioned on a continuous ladder that sinks down into the interior of the earth and goes up into the clouds. For Lesskow, the highest creature is the righteous person; who is also a bridge between the mudnane and the divine world.


The whole created world speaks not so much with the human voice as with what could be called "the voice of Nature". [An extended rendering of a tale of Lesskow's, which is about the voice of nature.]


Because the whole world speaks with the voice of nature, Lesskow can even write about stones, the least conscious of all beings, as if they have a significance to man and communicate with him.

One can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman’s relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.

Seen in this way, the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages. He has counsel - not for a few situations, as the proverb does, but for many, like the sage. For it is granted to him to reach back to a whole lifetime (a life, incidentally, that comprises not only his own experience but no little of the experience of others; what the storyteller knows from hearsay is added to his own). His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to tell his entire life. The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story. This is the basis of the incomparable aura about the storyteller, in Leskov as in Hauff, in Poe as in Stevenson. The storyteller is the figure in which the righteous man encounters himself.

* This reminds me of the lines by T. S. Eliot: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Friday, October 20, 2006

[Fantasy] Elfland, Poughkeepsie, Hogwarts and the Game of Houses

This post is not about roleplaying or interactive fiction, but about fantasy literature. I suspect that there will be more posts like that in the future, so my apologies if you do not care for the subject. The [Fantasy]-tag will help you recognise and avoid them.

I am currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin's From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in which she discusses writing styles appropriate to fantasy. But more interesting than her comments on style (which, though true, are not especially insightful) is the framework of her discussion; the insight in fantasy that allows her to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate styles.

Her metaphor is that of a big national park, which people should go to in order to experience something they normally do not (wilderness, nature), but which some people do go to "in a trailer with a motorbike on the back and a motorboat on top and a butane stove, five aluminium folding chairs, and a transistor radio on the inside. They arrive in a totally encapsulated reality." Some writers of fantasy, Le Guin goes on to argue, do the same: they toss in some faeries or dragons or magicians, but they never take their readers away to Elfland, never make them feel the essential strangeness and difference of that place. "[T]he point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It's not Poughkeepsie. It's different."

Today, you might want to substitute 'Hogwarts' for 'Poughkeepsie', as John Pennington does in his - basically right if not always convincing - From Elfland to Hogwarts, or the Aesthetic Trouble with Harry Potter.

It seems to me that Le Guin is right: fantasy, as a kind of literature, must be distancing, must always be about something Else. Having flying brooms is not enough, not if you use them to play a kind of football. Such literature may be whimsical, but is not fantastic - and it has a much greater danger of being pure escapism. (As Harry Potter, from what I've read of it, undoubtedly is. Why it is so widely praised is beyond me.)

What I want to suggest is that Robert Jordan, writer of that interminable sequence The Wheel of Time, has fallen prey to the same thing in his later books. Jordan is of course merely a token representing many of his colleagues. I do not suggest that this is the main flaw of Jordan's books; their lack of pace, bad style and bad characterisation also come to mind - but it is perhaps the most interesting. It may explain why so many people I have spoken to have become disenchanted with the series as it ran on: the series itself became disenchanted, in a very literal way.

One of the first scenes of Jordan's first book, The Eye of the World, features Rand al'Thor, the protagonist, as his father's farm is being attacked by a group of monstrous creatures intent on killing him. This does not win Jorden a prize for originality, of course, but it does make his book proper fantasy. The world we are transported to is dangerous; these dangers are real and present; and people accept them as dangers they simply have to face, and have to cope with.

This primacy of danger is a typical trope of fantastic literature. It is alien to our common conception of the world we live in: if our house were to be attacked by anyone, we would expect the police to come to our aid, or at least attempt to punish the attackers afterwards. In our common conception of our world, danger has no primacy, but must submit to law and order, to rights, to insurances.

We all know (though we are not often aware of it) that danger will not really submit to our all-too-human systems of protection. This is the truth that is expressed by Jordan's scene; and fantasy is its proper form of expression, because it allows the writer to immediately dispense with a whole complex of real institutions that stand between us and the perception of this truth.

Suppose that Jordan had followed up the scene with others in which the royal "Red Mages" had come to investigate the killing; had gone on a quest to kill the monstrous beings and imprison the elf that led them; and had sentenced the elf to pay for all the reconstruction work in the village he had his minions attack - than, no matter the monsters and the mages and the elf, we would not have had a fantasy. We would have had a basically realistic novel dressed up in whimsical (if somewhat overused) invention. The fantastic would have detracted from, instead of added to, the message.

In the later books of the Wheel of Time cycle, Rand al'Thor has become the king of many lands and peoples. Most of the books are now concerned with his attempts to keep all these people together; to overcome their natural prejudices and fears; and with the many, many power struggles among the various groups. Jordan calls it 'The Game of Houses'.

All of this could have happened in Poughkeepsie as well as in Elfland.

But even that is not really true; it really could not have happened in Elfland. It is too comfortable, too well-known - we see it around us every day. It is just politics. As Jordan changes his focus towards political power games, the fantasy loses its aspect of being a fantasy. As the magic becomes a political tool and concern, it ceases to be magic. We find ourselves in Poughkeepsie, sitting on an aluminium folding chair and wondering why we went through the trouble of imagining such a vast, diverse and in the end curiously bland alternative reality.

(This, I suppose, is where George R. R. Martin comes onto the stage and says, with a sly smile: "Well, but if one is a realist in disguise, one should have the courage to be a
realist in disguise!" And goes on to write a political 'fantasy' called A Song of Ice and Fire which invokes the illustrations not of Royo, but of Goya.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sexism in the Realms

Being ill, I wanted to read an easy book this weekend. I chose R. A. Salvatore's The Dark Elf Trilogy, a set of Forgotten Realms novels describing the youth of that well-known D&D character, the good drow Drizzt Do'Urden. They were pretty bad, of course, but just the kind of light entertainment I was looking for. Except...

There has been some discussion of sexism in roleplaying games on the internet, among which John Kim's interesting and shocking Gender Roles in RPG Texts. Although Salvatore's books are not roleplaying games, the fact that they are official TSR-published novels set in one of the most popular roleplaying settings in history makes them relevant to this discussion. And boy, these books are so sexist that I couldn't believe what I was reading.

Not that Salvatore ever says anything like "women are inferior to men". I suspect that he is not even aware of his own sexism, and that - what is even worse - most of his readers never notice it. But look beyond the surface, and what you see will not make you happy.
  • The corrupted elves known as the drow are also the only elves with a matriarchal society.
  • All dark elfs in the book are evil, except for two. Both of these good dark elfs are male.
  • Drizzt Do'Urden is good because his father was also good - the implication being that blood carries morality - but Drizzt's full sister is evil. Perhaps the father's blood wasn't strong enough to defeat the inherent evilness of women?
  • Two drow characters in the series show some understanding of what it means to be a father. However, none of the drow females in the books has anything even approaching a mother instinct. In fact, they seem to believe that sacrificing your just-orn baby to the spider goddess is the most normal thing in the world.

  • About one thousand times Salvatore shows us how male drow are humiliated and repressed by female drow. Presumably, we should be appalled by this. But when Drizzt comes into contact with a human society where the men make all important decisions, he does not even seem to realise that the same kind of humiliation and repression is going on here.

  • All characters in the books that excel in any way are men. There are women who are said to excel, but they are never shown in action. Quite in general, the men always defeat the women.

  • The strong drow males are strong because of their own innate and trained powers. The strong drow females are strong only because they have been given powers by the spider goddess Lolth. As soon as they fall out of Lolth's favour, they are helpless. In other words: female power is unnatural.

  • Even worse, the actual women in the series fall out of Lolth's favour because they are not effective enough at humiliating ans repressing their men. In other words: female power is unnatural and can only be sustained by repressing the natural power of males.

  • Then, we get to sexuality. Salvatory luckily spares us the details, but the ritual that is the graduation ceremony of the drow schools consists of (1) all students are dragged into a sexual orgy by the priestesses of Lolth; and (2) the best of the student-priestesses has the honour of having intercourse with a huge demon. Alle women are whores who prefer fucking rough beasts?

  • To make that point worse, one of Drizzt's sister already has lustful thoughts about him the moment he is born.

  • Drizzt's father is a good drow, which is frowned upon, but his Matron Mother allows him to live for two reasons. (1) He is the greatest fighter in the realm. (2) He is very good in bed. A single good man surviving by impressing the evil tyrant women with his sexual prowess? In your dreams, mister Salvatore!
This seriously makes me wonder how sexist the rest of TSR's offerings are. And what about fantasy in general?


If you search for "drow + sexism" on the net, you will find people talking about the sexism of the drow, where they mean the fact that the drow themselves are sexist because they repress men. Isn't it ironic that in trying to show the evils of sexism, people like Salvatore actually reveal themselves to be sexist?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

IF Comp 2006

The annual Interactive Fiction comepetition has begun. You can download the games today, start playing and judge them. Your votes must be in by November the 15th.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Ideology of Conflict

[This post is very long, but I consider it one of the most important ones I made in this blog. Perhaps the most important one.]

Introduction: The ubiquity of conflict

It is by now standard for a game in the tradition of the Forge to be about conflicts and their resolutions. Whether you play Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life with Master or The Shadow of Yesterday, the idea is that the GM and the player take opposite sides of a fictional conflict, then resolve it. In Polaris, the structure is no different: the Heart and the Mistaken have free play until they wish different things to happen, at which point challenge, conflict and resolution occur. Universalis is driven by the conflicting wishes of the players; 1001 Nights is about the players trying to be the one who realises his Ambition/Freedom first, in a setting where jealousy only exacerbates this conflict of interest; in Shooting the Moon the two Suitors are trying to get the prize and stop the other from getting it.

But really, this is nothing new. Dungeons and Dragons, from the very start, was about conflict: a conflict of the players against the dungeon, or against other groups in a tournament. Why does a player of Vampire desire all the cool powers his vampire can get? Because it makes the character more powerful in the fiction, and thus more likely to prevail in the bitter conflicts that characterise undead society. (The whole setting is built around conflict, with all its hierarchy, its clans, its division between the Camarilla and the... uh... whatever it is that is opposed to the Camarilla.)

The result of this ubiquity of conflict is that most roleplaying games lead to conflict-driven stories. In most roleplaying, the drama comes from opposed wills (either those of the characters or those of the players, and generally both at the same time) clashing, and either dominating or succumbing.

As a conscious design choice, there is nothing wrong with this. But as a given which is not reflected upon, it betrays an ideology of conflict: an idea that the world is in fact driven by conflict, an idea that our lives are to be understood as fights of our will against opposing wills/forces. One doesn't have to be a Marxist or a feminist to have a feeling that this is a very capitalist or a very male conception of the world. (Never mind that Marxism is also an ideology of conflict.) It is certainly not the only possible conception!

Stories without conflicts

You may feel that a conflict-based view of life is perhaps optional, but that it is nevertheless necessary for interesting stories. I found this idea in the comments to a post by Adam Dray in which he talks about stimulating non-conflict scenes. Someone asks "Is conflict yet another sacred cow?", and the answer is:
If it's a sacred cow, then it's one that goes all the way back Gilgamesh. Conflict is central to most narrative as we understand it.
But, as a matter of fact, this is not true. There are vast, and I mean vast, numbers of stories which are not conflict-driven at all. I will give you a few examples.

First, meet my favourite Dutch author, Nescio. I don't know if his stories have been translated into English, but if they have, go and read them. He really only wrote four short stories, so it doesn't take a lot of time, but they are works of genius.

However, they are not about conflicts. The protagonists are young, idealistic men, who are planning to do something worthwhile with their lives, and not to become trapped in the trappings of a standard, bourgeois life. You know, from the very start, that they are going to fail. In fact, they know that they are going to fail, even if they don't want to admit it. They make plans, but never do anything. They go out into the countryside to watch the sunrise - a moment of beauty in a melancholy and resigned (gelaten, gelassen; 'resigned' doesn't translate perfectly) life. And never, ever, do they come in conflict with each other or with other people; never, ever is the reader wondering 'who will win this conflict?'. But these stories work, and I would love to see a roleplaying game which creates the same atmosphere.

Second, let us consider Kafka's Das Schloss (The Castle), which is about K trying, for unclear reasons, to reach a castle. Is there perhaps a conflict between K, who wishes to get into the castle, and someone or something else, who does not wish him to get into the castle. No - one of the novel's most intriguing aspects is that even though nobody and nothing is actually opposed to K, he is nevertheless unable to make any progress towards his goal. What makes the novel so haunting is precisely that K never gets to a conflict, that the conflict always recedes, that any attempt to attack the barriers that oppose him turns out to be an attack against nothing. K has no chance of success not because the forces opposing him are too strong and he is bound to lose the conflict, but because there will never be a conflict.

Third, moving to English literature, what is the conflict in Conrad's Heart of Darkness? Is the book ever about whether or not the protagonist will find Kurz? Surely it is not. It is a story of experience, but not of conflict. What is the conflict in Nabokov's Pale Fire? That story is driven by the painful unfolding of Kimbote's egotism, but not by any events whatsoever. What conflict is the dramatic heart of Harrison's Signs of Life, a story the protagonist of which lives as if he is never really involved in what he is doing?

There is, then, a whole realm of stories which are not driven by conflicts. Can we play them with roleplaying games?

Non-conflict RPGs

Yes, we can, and there are already several roleplaying games out there that achieve this to some degree. I will talk about Bacchanal, Breaking the Ice, Shades and De Profundis. There are probably others. But they are a small minority, and there is a lot of room to explore.


Strictly speaking, Bacchanal is conflict-driven: the overall story-arc of each character is formed by the resolution of a conflict between the Accuser (who wishes to kill the protagonist) and the protagonist (who wishes to escape Puetoli). What is interesting, though, is that for each player there is only one conflict in the entire game; play does emphatically not proceed on a conflict-to-conflict basis. Although the rolls do in the end resolve the conflict, most of them push the player not towards resolution, but towards exploring sexuality and decadence.

Breaking the Ice

Emily's game is not conflict-driven, neither on the level of the players nor on that of the characters. In all the games I played, both players wanted the characters to succeed (and I consider this necessary for playing a good game of BtI); and obviously the very fact that they are dating shows that the characters want, at heart, to have a successful romance. There are neither conflicts between the players nor between the characters, and there is therefore no conflict-to-conflict structure of play and no conflict resolution.

This is obviously utterly appropriate for a game which is about being vulnerable and coming closer together through being vulnerable. Emily's portrayal of love (at least in this game) is opposed to the ideology of conflict.

"But surely there is a conflict between the players and ..." No. I will answer that objection in the next section.


My game has no resolution system whatsoever. If the players have a disagreement about the fiction, there is simply no way that one of the players can make his wishes prevail against those of the other. But, on the contrary, you can let the wishes of the other prevail against your own - and this is the only way to ever complete the game. (I should note that speaking of 'wishes' may even be going to far in the direction of conflict.)

But, someone will object, if any game is conflict-driven, it is Shades: after all, isn't one of the objectives of play to establish a deep and dramatic conflict between the characters? Yes. But it is not the object of play to resolve this conflict. It has already been resolved in advance, and everyone has lost. The dramatic power of the stories comes not from resolving the conflict, but from dissolving it: the question is whether the shades can come to see their conflict as something that they can leave in the past, that they can outgrow, that they can transcend towards a new harmony. Shades is a direct attack on the ideology of conflict.

De Profundis

The letter-based game of Lovecraftian horror is not bases on conflicts either. You write each other letters detailing creepy events that have affected you, trying to weave elements of the others' tales into your own. Perhaps you die, perhaps you do not. The whole idea is to entertain others, create a convincing fiction and creep yourself out.

This is utterly appropriate for a Lovecraftian game. The characters of Lovecraft (whom, by the way, I consider a pretty bad writer) never act; like those of Clark Ashton Smith, they only experience. Such experiential characters cannot possibly be a party in a conflict.

Conflict and Resistance

Someone will object that play without conflicts falls flat. If you can just tell whatever you like, whenever you like, play is without energy and there will be a general lack of fun.

This is true in so far as a successful game needs a form of Resistance. Every story is teleological: the beginning points towards an end, where it may or may not be clear which possible end will be the actual end. Something has to stop you from just skipping from the beginning to the end. Something has to ensure that the game must go through the intermediary event, must actually tell a story. This something is what I will call the Resistance.

Conflict is a form of Resistance. If there are characters with opposing wills and the power to try and make their wills reality, there will be Resistance to each possible ending. Play can then consist of playing out conflict after conflict, until one of the will emerges as victorious; or, as happens more often, until one character gets what he wanted, having paid a heavy price for it that makes us wonder whether it was worth it.

But there are other forms of Resistance. In Breaking the Ice, it is, fictionally, the difficulty of showing yourself to another person, of breaking down the walls that protect you from harm; and the possibility of incompatibility. Mechanically, it is the Resistance of the dice against the wishes of the players. But this Resistance is not a conflict. There are no opposed wills. There are no winners and no losers.

In Shades, the Resistance is the difficulty of getting on the same page with your fellow players and the difficulty of shaping the loose fragments you start with into a coherent story. The game does everything to make this Resistance strong, but it also gives you the tools to overcome it.

In De Profundis, the Resistance is mostly your own habit of taking everything for granted, of not seeing the possible mysteries behind everyday occurrences. The game is designed to make you look at the world around you with other eyes.

In the work of Nescio, the Resistance is the difference between dream and reality, between the beauty we crave and the world we inhabit. In the work of Kafka, the Resistance is the very impossibility of fighting to achieve your aims.

(But is 'overcoming Resistance' not just a kind of Conflict? Does not the very logic of the story, its teleology, incorporate the idea of Conflict? We could only say that by widening the meaning of the word 'Conflict' so much that it would no longer designate what we used to designate with it. Let us adopt two different terms for Resistance and Conflict, which is a form of Resistance.)

Designing without Conflicts

There are many types of Resistance, but only Conflict has been explored thoroughly in roleplaying games. Or rather, perhaps some other types have also been explored - in which case I would love to hear about them, and perhaps the LARP and freeform people are the ones to teach us here - but most remain unexplored and often even unrecognised.

Consider this.

I have heard it say that Vampire is a game that allows you to explore existential dread. Obviously, it is not; and no conflict-based game could be. What we dread is freedom, but not because we are afraid of making the wrong choice. What we dread is the very fact that we have to make choices; that our being-as-possibility must at every instant of time turn into a being-as-determinate. I chose to become a philosopher, at the same time choosing not to be, say, a forester. Dread is provoked not by the fact that I am afraid that I have made the wrong choice; not by a naive belief that forestry is more fun than philosophy (as if maximising fun were the meaning of life!). Dread is provoked by the disappearance into nothingness of the possibility of becoming a forester. I can no longer become a forester, or at least I can no longer become a forester before my 24th. We shed possibilities all the time. At the instant of our death, we are no longer possibilities, we are no longer free: we are determined.

This is an extremely powerful theme. How could it be explored in a roleplaying game?

Consider this.

A woman asks a man to marry her, but he doesn't know whether he loves her. He goes through the motions, but whether they are caused by real love or whether he merely acts as if they are caused by real love isn't clear to him. He has no idea how to answer the question, but constantly agonises over it.

How could this be explored in a roleplaying game?

Consider this.

A man and a woman once loved each other, but with old age a certain tiredness has come into their relationship. They both long for the passion of yore, but do not know how to bring it back. Perhaps, they wonder, perhaps they have to learn to be content with companionship instead of love.

How could this be explored in a roleplaying game?

You will be able to multiply these examples. The key point is this. I am growing tired of people solving moral conflicts with a gun, of wars and fights, of antagonists, of struggles between knights and demons. I want more games which do not conceptualise life as a conflict. So - how are we going to make them?

Conflict and Task Resolution

I am going to write a post called The Ideology of Conflict, and planned this discussion of conflict resolution and task resolution as an aside in it. But I believe its length warrants making a special post out of it, so here you are. The thesis I will defend is this: Conflict Resolution and Task Resolution are useless as analytic terms.

I suggest you take a few minutes to reread Vincent Baker's old post on these two types of resolution. A small quote:

Which is important to the resolution rules: opening the safe, or getting the dirt? That's how you tell whether it's task resolution or conflict resolution.

Task resolution is succeed/fail. Conflict resolution is win/lose. You can succeed but lose, fail but win.

The distinction between CR and TR has been important, historically, because it made people rethink the way roleplaying games worked. But we are now in a position to see clearly that CR and TR are, in fact, identical. There is no difference between the two. As analytic tools, they are useless.

Distinguishing TR and CR went like this. First, you ask what the character is attempting to do. This is the task. Then, you ask why the character is trying to do that; or, almost equivalently, why the player is trying to have the character succeed at the task. This is the stake of the conflict.

Then we define: TR is about resolving the What. CR is about resolving the Why.

So, TR and CR are different precisely in so far as we can distinguish between a What and a Why, between an action and the goal of that action. But when we think about this some more, we will see that this distinction breaks down completely.

The character attempts to open the safe. Why does the character attempt to open the safe? In order to get the dirt on the villain. Ah - so in attempting to open the safe, the character is attempting to get the dirt on the villain. Why does the character attempt to get the dirt on the villain? Because he wishes to blackmail the villain. Ah - so in attempting to get the dirt on the villain, the character is attempting to blackmail the villain. Why does the character attempt to blackmail the villain? Because he wants the villain to release the character's little sister, whom the villain has kidnapped. Ah - so in attempting to blackmail the villain, the character is attempting to free his sister. Why...

You will see the point by now. The structure of task and conflict is not that of a simple duality, but that of an infinite regress. Every action (the What) points towards a larger goal (the Why) which gives the action its value. But this goal immediately furnishes a new description for the action, thus becoming a What. This What points to a new Why. And so forth.

When do we have Task Resolution, and when do we have Conflict Resolution? It would be completely arbitrary to say that the task is opening the safe, and the conflict is getting the dirt on the villain. We could just as well say that the task is to get the dirt on the villain, and the conflict is to free the character's sister. We could just as well say that the task is to make a set of complicated movements with the characters left hand, and the conflict is to open the safe. There is no natural division.

But what if we state the whole thing on the level of the player, instead of the level of the character? (This obviously does not help, since the logic of the situation stays the same; but we will discuss it in order to make things clearer.) TR is about things the player does not care about except in so far as they point to something else; CR is about things the player cares about for themselves. The player doesn't care whether he opens the safe or not, but he does care about whether he gets the dirt on the villain or not.

The counterargument stays just the same. Perhaps it is true that the player only cares about the action (the task, the What) because it is a means to a goal (the Why). But this goal can itself be seen as a What, which points to a further Why. The player does not care about getting the dirt on the villain, he cares about freeing his sister. He does not care about freeing his sister, he cares about being able to think of his character as some who looks after those he loves. And so on, and so forth. The only way to stop the infinite regress is to postulate at some point the "Final Care" of the player. But then the only possible conflict would be whether the player gets his Final Care or not, and at that point the fullness of his caring would reveal itself as total emptiness.

Anything valued points beyond itself, to a value. But that value, being valued, also points beyond itself; and so on. The character of value is transcendence.

So far for a philosophical backing; let's return to game design. If, as I maintain, there is no difference between task resolution and conflist resolution; if any example can only be about choosing a different level of concerns as the one on which resolution takes place; then what was the use of the distinction?

The distinction between TR and CR made people aware that there are different levels of concern on which resolution can take place. This led people to reconsider the level they were using, and finding out that often, it was not the most satisfactory level. It allowed us to see that small physical actions were not always the best level.

That is all. It was enough. It was great. But now we can put those two terms to rest, because the distinction they tried to mark does not exist.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Shock:, gender, and "What was sie thinking?"

I am currently reading Shock: social science fiction, by Joshua Newman. I quote the book:

Shock: uses genderless personal pronouns when the gender of a person - a character or a player - is unknown or irrelevant. In these cases, Shock: doesn't use "he", "his", "him", "himself", "she", "her", "herself" or "hers", using the pronouns favored by many contemporary gender theorists: "sie" "hir" "hirself", and "hirs". If this makes you uncomfortable, that's what a Shock is. If they don't, you'll feel right at home playing.
It doesn't make me uncomfortable, but it does make for uncomfortable reading. Let's leave aside the question whether these gender neutral pronouns serve any worthy puprose, either in this game text or in general. What I want to say is something concerning this contemporary gender theorist: What on earth was sie thinking when sie decided that the German female pronoun "sie" was a spiffy choice for a gender-neutral English pronoun? How can anyone be supposed to read a text wherein this obviously non-English word appears and not have associations with the German word for "she"?

Yes... but does this Gamist clockwork tick?

I do not know whether I read this somewhere or thought it up myself, but I consider The Shadow of Yesterday to be a Narrativist game containing a Gamist clockwork that makes it run. Consider: you have all these cool skills and secrets, and you want to get more and better ones. The way to do this is to get XP. The way to get XP is to hit and resolve your Keys. Hitting and resolving your Keys is almost guaranteed to generate a good thematic story. See? Never mind my liberal use of the GNS terms here.

Last week, I finished a satisfying game of The Shadow of Yesterday with Jasper Polane. During the six or so sessions of this game, I noticed the following phenomenon: in the first sessions I really wanted to increase my skills, and actively worked towards my Keys for that reason; but as the game progressed, my interest in getting Advances dwindled, and in the end I was only hitting the keys because that fitted into my story.

Although this doesn't really hurt the game, it nevertheless cannot be the aim of the rules. Surely, advances are supposed to be enticing. But are they? Better skills may make your character succeed more often, but nothing in The Shadow of Yesterday appears to encourage aiming towards character success, instead of character failure - in this respect, it is unlike My Life with Master, where the growing hatred of the Master character really makes the player want their character to succeed. And then there is the question whether better skills actually do make your character succeed more often: given that there are no rules for the strengths of NPCs, nothing is stopping the GM from scaling the important NPCs of the story with the PC's skill levels.

So, I am thinking that this gamist engine is not ticking as it should. That may be due to something I am doing wrong, or it may be because you cannot power a game by an engine that taps into a different Creative Agenda than the game itself. What are your experiences with The Shadow of Yesterday, concerning this issue?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Full disclosure in RPGs and IF

In indie-RPGs, there has been a trend towards what I will call full disclosure. In traditional games, there is a knowledge asymmetry about the fictional world in that the GameMaster knows a lot more of what is going on and what is going to happen than the players do. In many recent games, the GM can be more open, or even completely open, about her knowledge; or her lack of knowledge. In InSpectres, for instance, I am always very sure to show my players how I roll an assignment on the assignment chart: this drives it home to them that I have nothing up my sleeve, and the the story is theirs as much as mine to tell. In Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM's first task is to make sure that the players get to know all of what's going on in the town: she first discloses everything, and then the fireworks start going off.

This mode of play has advantages as well as disadvantages, but it is surely advantageous as far as we are trying to make the players real co-authors of the story. It is obviously difficult to contribute meaningfully to the story when you do not know everything which is relevant.

In interactive fiction, this step towards full disclosure has not been made. At least, I have never seen a game that tells its players up front what it is about, what meaningful choices the player can make and in what different ways the game can end.

Again, there are advantages and disadvantages to disclosure. But, again again, if we want the reader of the piece to become a real co-author, disclosure is good and proper.

I would really like to see experiments with full disclosure in interactive fiction.

[Shades] Lay-out

I was planning to give Shades a minimalist lay-out: perhaps just a picture on the front cover, and maybe only plain LaTeX-generated text on the inside. No bells, no whistles, just the content in an easily accessible form.

And then Jasper Polane has to screw it all up by telling me that I should lay-out the thing as a Victorian family album, where the actual play examples are yellowed photographs and handwritten memoirs. And he is so right. Alas, all the work this will mean...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

[Stalin's Story] Rethinking the basics

Stalin's Story is a game I wrote for the Ronnies a while back, using the words "dragon" and "Soviet". Basically, it has two components: one component is an intricate, card-based storytelling game using Vladimir Propp's analysis of Russian fairy tales; the other is a social component allowing the players to explore the power relations of totalitarianism.

The result of grouping these two components together is something that is too complex. From now on, Stalin's Story will refer to the second, social component, without the intricate Proppian mechanics. How should this leaner Stalin's Story work?

First, it is of the essence that Stalin is chosen by chance, not by consent. When you start playing, everyone has the hope to be Stalin, but only one will be him. (Yes, this may remind the political philosophers among us of Rawls' Veil of Ignorance.) The person who is appointed Stalin, by dice or cards, should be obeyed by everyone; this text should definitely appear in the final version in some way:

Now, you may need to rearrange the furniture a bit. Stalin and his courtiers should be able to sit, while the actors need room to act out the fairy tale. Rearrangements of the furniture are made under the supervision of Stalin, but the other players do all the work. When the rearrangements have been made to Stalin’s satisfaction, he chooses a place to sit – preferably the most comfortable chair or couch – and tells the courtiers where they are to sit. (Which could as easily be on the floor as on an actual chair.)

Perhaps Stalin wants some other preparations to be taken, and it is expected that he orders the other players around and they do what he asks. Making tea, giving vodka to Stalin and the courtiers – or to Stalin alone –, turning off the music, turning on the music (I suggest Shostakovich), changing the illumination, are all good tasks. When Stalin is quite satisfied and all the courtiers have taken their designated seats, the game begins.

Then, the players actually have to do something. I don't know what, yet, but it should allow them to please or displease Stalin and each other.

Also, in order to heighten the possibility of power abuse, Stalin should be insecure. I am thinking of designating one of the players (in secret) as the Traitor, who has a gun hidden on his body, and - from some point in the game onwards - can try to shoot Stalin. Stalin's aim should be to prevent this from happening; all the other player's should aim at becoming either Stalin's right hand man, or the new dictator. The way in which this power struggle should be formalised needs some thinking over.

But the central idea must be this: during most of the game, Stalin has all the power, and this power is real: he can order players to be killed (that is, leave the game), and if he only knew who are for and who are against him, he could easily secure his own survival. But he does not know, and therefore remains, though powerful, insecure and a potential victim of paranoia.

[Shades] Surprise

Shades is a game for two or three players. I mean, it says so in the rules. And that is why I dimissed it as an option when Remko, Annette and Eva came over to my place last week.

Until I realised that those rules has been written by me, and that I had never tested the game with more than two players. So I thought "it's worth a try", and we played it with four. Now, the four of us are friends, in some cases very close friends; we played together many times before; and to a large extent we are on the same page when it comes to roleplaying. The circumstances, then, were optimal for a game of Shades - and lo and behold, to my surprise it went very well indeed.

(The tale turned out to be about a noble/rich family consisting of an elder, somewhat tyrannical brother; a younger, slightly mad brother; their sister, aged in between, vicious but insecure; and the sister's maid, who was also the lover of both brothers. Their struggles for power and love led them to cruelty, and finally, suicide. But, as shades, they finally understood each other's motives and weaknesses, made their peace, and died their final death.

As with every game of Shades I ever played, none of the characters received a name.

When the game ended, I put on Mozart's Requiem, and we sat in silence, holding hands, around the single candle left to burn, listening without a word to the work entire. When its last note died away, I blew out the last candle.)
Moral: don't ever believe you know your own game until you tried it out.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Improving us, the audience

In Musings and Mental Meanderings Thomas Robertson reminds us that games aren't the only texts that can impact play. We could also write texts about improving your gaming techniques, or write toolboxes that allow people to more or less put together their own game, and so forth. Some such books do exist; I believe you can buy books that tell you how to make a maximally effective fighter/wizard/whatever in D&D3E.

I can see the same happening in the indie scene: How to GM Dogs in the Vineyard, or Fear and Loathing: getting the most out of My Life with Master, or Twelve ways to structure Polaris. These books need not be tied to one single game, of course. Improve your description techniques, or or Ten simple games to build trust or the best-selling Relationship Maps that Kick Ass all seem definite possibilities.

We will return, in a roundabout way, to the theme of roleplaying as a form of art.

We take a detour over Ron Edward's band-metaphor of roleplaying. Roleplaying, he wrote, is like playing in a band. If you want to create art, not just have fun while fooling around, you will need to be dedicated to improving your skills both individually and as a group. (He goes on to liken the GM to the bass player. This is not important to our discussion.)

The metaphor is sound, but needs to be extended. A roleplaying group is not just a bunch of people who perform, it is also a bunch of people who are an audience. They 'perform' their 'actual play', while 'listening' to the 'game'. (A lot of scare quotes for a strained expression.)

In order to get the most out of the roleplaying game they are playing, they need to hone their performing skills. They are a good audience for the game, able to experience it as it was meant to and have an informed opinion about it, exactly in so far as their performing skills match the requirements of the game. It seems quite likely that there can be 'tough' games that require an experienced audience in order to be enjoyed and appreciated. (And this through no fault of the designer, but because of their intrinsic nature.) The Art of Fugue asks more of its audience than Nothing Else Matters does; the same with Mullholland Drive and Titanic. Roleplaying games need be no different.

Which ends our detour and brings us back to the topic of art, and the community needed to make roleplaying as a form of art possible. We don't just need great designers, who have been shaped in a critical culture; we also need an audience able to play and appreciate these great games when they are made. Will playing a lot of RPGs be enough to get the skills needed as an audience? Or will the kind of books we spoke about above be able to help us improve, as an audience? I wouldn't be surprised if the latter turned out to be the case.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A culture of criticism, part I

If we want roleplaying to become an important form of art, we must have Great Games. Therefore, we must build up a community that allows designers to shape themselves into Great Artists. One necessary element of such a community is a culture of criticism.

'Criticism', here, should be understood in both its popular senses. We need, firstly, a culture in which people honestly appraise the qualities of the games that are created, and honestly and realisticly judge the merits and demerits of these games. Right now, we do not have such a culture, as I will argue below.

We need, secondly, a culture in which there are RPG critics - in the sense that there are literary critics: people who can understand games and write thoughtful reviews about them. Not reviews of the kind that are published on RPGnet, with their simplistic point-based ratings; but the kind of reviews that assume you have already read and played the game, and now wish to understand it better. Reviews of this kind are written today, but only rarely. However, I will focus on the first kind of criticism in this post, leaving this second kind of criticism for later.

We do not have a culture of criticism yet. This is only to be expected; the scene is too young. But it is time to start working on one, because we have moved to a new stage in the evolution of the medium: a stage of proliferation.

For the past few years, every completed, playtested indie RPG written by someone with a modest amount of skill and originality was something to be thankful for. There were so few of them that they were all welcomed enthusiastically. This was good and proper. But now, and I believe this summer can be pointed to as a watershed, the number of new indie RPGs conforming to these modest requirements has risen beyond the number of RPGs that anyone can be expected to play - or even buy and read. A critical mass has been reached; and now it is time to start being critical. We have to be able to look at a game and say: nice try, but no cigar.

Do me a favour, and look around on Story Games or the AP section of The Forge. (Or any other place where a lot of indie RPG people get together.) Look at what people say about games. Try to find people who say: "This game is not very good." about any recent, published indie game. This is going to be hard.

On the contrary, the word you are most likely to find is 'awesome'. Every game appears to be awesome.

I will let you in on a secret: right now, in the year 2006, there are no awesome roleplaying games. There are fine roleplaying games. There are, perhaps, even a few good roleplaying games, though it may be too early to say. But there are no roleplaying games that you should be in awe of. There is no roleplaying equivalent of Crime and Punishment, of Citizen Kane, of the Art of Fugue, of In Memoriam. Of course not; the art form is too young.

But if there are no awesome roleplaying games, do not tell me that there are. Tell me that a game is fun, but is lacking in this or that respect. Tell me that a game is good. Tell me that some designer is promising. But don't tell me about every game you had fun with that it is awesome. If you do, you will not have the words to describe a true work of genius. (I would like to say at this point that the adjective 'fucking' is not going to help you. Nothing is 'fucking awesome', though some people may be fucking awesomely.)

Some people will object that the indie scene is too small for a community of criticism to come into existence. If all games are made by people you know at least vaguely, and will continue to meet on the internet, you will be inclined to say merely positive things about their work.

This objection doesn't convince me. Here is a truth: you are not doing your friends a favour by telling them their work is better than it actually is. Quite the contrary, you are stifling their further growth. I want to see merciless criticism - in a spirit of friendship. This is possible. It is, quite likely, necessary.

Remember: all the games we currently have are mere shadows of what the form can be.

Next time: on growing up and genre games.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The social structure of My Life with Master

In order to make it clearer what I was getting at with my previous post, I'll here repeat part of what I said in its comments. The question is: what can roleplaying games do that other forms of art cannot? The answer is: create or change a social relation mediated by images. The example is My Life with Master.

What seems to me unique in roleplaying games, is that they can create a real and new social situation, right there, between you and your fellow players; and they allow you to experiment with this situation. What is so cunning about My Life with Master is that the social relations it creates in the gaming group are an exact mirror of the fictional relations. Observe:

1. The GM needs the players, for without them there is no game and he has no power. The Master needs his minions, for without them he has no power.
2. The GM must bully the players - emotionally and, in fact, almost physically (see the Manifesto on Mastery). He, the actual person, must think up fictional tasks that the players are loathe to play out. And he has the power to make the players carry them out. In the same way, the Master bullies the minions, and makes them carry out tasks they do not wish to carry out.

3. The GM and the players must play on each other's emotions in order to get bonus dice; the Master and the minions do exactly the same.

4. The players are bound to win, eventually, and become the final authors of the story. In the same way, the minions are bound to defeat the Master and have, if not a happy end, at least a fate of their own. (It is not an accident that the game ends with monologues by the players; as the Master dies, so, metaphorically, does the GM.)

What the game has done, then, is create, right there, in the real world, a less severe but still perceptible form of the social relations it is about. It makes it possible for you to not only tell a story about dysfunctional relationships of need and power, it allows you to actually experience them.

No book or movie could possibly do that. Writing can't do that. Improv theater might; but then, that is a kind of roleplaying.

This, my friends, is where the great power of our art lies.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Innovative, radical art

A roleplaying game is not a collection of images; it is a social relation mediated by a collection of images. As a radical form of art, roleplaying games cannot differentiate themselves from more mature forms of art like film and literature by making possible new kinds of images or new ways of collecting them; as a radical form of art, roleplaying games must seek their innovative potential in the social relations they create or change.

Polaris and Breaking the Ice well deserved their top places as Most Innovative Game in this year's indie game awards. But if there had been an award for Most Innovative Art, it should have gone to Bacchanal. That game is all about creating a social situation you simply don't get with any other RPG - or any book or movie, for that matter.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

[Shades] Where Push is Pull

I was just rereading Shades (playtest rules) - which I hope to finish at least in rough form by the end of the year - and realised that at its core lies an interesting twist on Push and Pull mechanics. For the sake of clarity, I will link to Mo Turkington's final post on Push/Pull and repeat her definitions here:

Push is an assertion of individual authority.

Pull is a directed solicitation for collaborative buy-in and input.

Shades aims for a kind of narrative that we all know from our actual experience: two or more people were involved in a situation that turned ugly, but all of them remember it differently and - surprise, surprise - in such a way that they are mostly blameless. However, as they rethink what happened, they come around to see the other's points of view, realise the falsity of some of their own recollections, and perhaps may reconcile themselves.

Now that sounds less scary and art-pour-l'art-like than talk about unreliable narrators, doesn't it? But it is about unreliable narrators, because all the memories that the players tell us about could be false as well as true, or partly false, or multiply interpretable. And this unreliability is essential to a game of Shades, for it is only by telling conflicting stories and then partly resolving the differences that the game proceeds.

Now, what about Push and Pull in Shades? At first sight, it appears to be the most Push-like game in the world. Players narrate in turns, and during your turn you have absolute and total authority over the narration. The other player(s) cannot object to what you say; they cannot make you say anything; they cannot interrupt you, or ask for any form of mechanical resolution. You have ultimate authority to assert whatever you wish.

However, at the same time, everything you say is an invitation: "Please, if you think this is interesting, contradict me on this point. During your turn, narrate something that casts doubt upon what I have said." You cannot make someone contradict you, but you can invite her to do so.

So there is a Push-Pull duality to every statement. On the one hand, you have absolute authority to say whatever you like and add it to the narration; on the other, in order to progress, you must constantly strive to make assertions that the other person finds interesting enough to contradict.

Contradicting has the same kind of duality. You are allowed to contradict whatever you wish in any way you like (Push); but this is not enough to have the game progress. For such a contradiction is also an invitation to the other player: "Please, if you think this point of difference is interesting and should be important to the story, give me a Black Token" (Pull). Every Push is a Pull, every Pull a Push.

And of course this is essential to Shades, which is all about learning to trust each other in a situation without safety nets. It gives people the ultimate authority for pushing, and in fact forces them to push constantly; but at the same time it makes their success dependent on being able to turn these pushes into effective pulls.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Four types of psychological depth

With regard to the kind of indie RPG that is unsuited to long 'campaigns' - think of My Life with Master, The Mountain Witch or Polaris - I have often heard people say that this does not appeal to them, because they need several sessions in order to 'get into' their character, and thus long campaigns to fully enjoy roleplaying him or her. Every time I heard this, I thought of the cardboard characters I had played in my longest games and the powerful, deep characters I had played in short, narrativist indie games, and I dismissed these complaints. This was foolish. Instead, I should have wondered whether there are not different types of characterisation, different ways to give a character what I might call 'psychological depth'; and different playing styles and games that allow us to create this kind of depth.

I will now present four types of psychological depth. This typology is probably not perfect; it is almost certainly not complete. But perhaps it can serve as a starting point for discussion.

A. Choice made difficult by internal tension

The character must make a choice between two or more options all of which she would like to make, but because of different kinds of reason. For instance, a mother who loves both her honour and her children must choose between the two (Medea); a boy must choose between fighting for his country or caring for his old mother (Sartre's famous example). We get to learn the character because we see her in a situation in which she must show which of her important drives is the strongest one. We get to learn the character because we see her in a situation in which she must decide who she really is.

This kind of psychological depth is exactly what the majority of current narrativist designs give us. Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Mountain Witch: all of them are designed to provoke this kind of choice. It is especially suited to shorter games, as the tensions within the character tend to resolve themselves. (But think of The Shadow of Yesterday: its system of buying-off and buying keys is a way of resolving and setting of new tensions.) Play is often dramatic; the characters larger than life, 'literary' characters, bigger and sharper versions of ourselves. We may feel for them, but we could not be them, and we probably do not love them.

B. Changes through external experiences

The character experiences things that cannot possibly leave her unchanged. A child watches her mother die? A curious librarian researching a bizarre cult almost comes face to face with Cthulhu himself and goes half mad. We get to learn the character not because of the choices the character makes, but because of learning of the powerful experiences she has had. We now know the person as 'the girl who watched her mother die', and will understand everything else she does in the light of this knowledge of her psyche. By knowing her history, we understand the current workings of her mind.

This type of psychological depth would be catered to by games involving (1) relatively long campaigns, and (2) a system that somehow encourages players to play their characters with a regard to previous experience. A game like Call of Cthulhu, with its sanity statistic, comes into mind, although it is relatively one-dimensional in this respect. One could use the fallout-techniques of Dogs in the Vineyard to achieve something much like this. Note how this type of psychological depth is not facilitated by The Shadow of Yesterday, where keys vanish without a trace.

C. Moments of openness

The character open her soul to you, as it were, in a moment of friendship, love and therefore vulnerability. It is the RPG equivalent of a late night conversation with a good friend, in which you speak of fears, hopes and desires that remained hidden for years. We get to learn the character because she drops the walls that always guard adult personalities, and allows us a chance to see her as she really is. We get to learn the character at the very moment she makes it possible for us to love her with all her faults and weaknesses (all love implies the possibility of pain).

The game that immediately comes to mind is Breaking the Ice, with its brilliant mechanics that force the characters into revealing their vulnerability, thus becoming more like us than any epic character could ever be. It is also the kind of psychological depth that my playtests make me believe Shades can offer its players. My Life with Master is an interesting case: it has strong elements of A and C and combines them by making the conflicting forces in the minion's psyche all types of vulnerability (Weariness, Self-Loathing, Love).

D. Lengthy observation

The character slowly reveals herself to us because we observe her for a long time. She makes no particularly revealing choices; she has no harrowing experiences that scar her forever after; and she does not open herself to us in a moment of love and vulnerability. Instead, we just get to know her by seeing how she reacts in many different situations; and although we may feel that we do not really know her inner thoughts and counsels, there is nevertheless an important sense in which we know her well. Make no mistake: this is the way we know most people in real life.

Interestingly, designing for this kind of psychological depth involves the following two things: (1) the system should facilitate long games, (2) the system should not facilitate A, B or C too much. Why not? Well - A, B and C will tend to interfere with D, by tempting us to interpret the characters actions in the light of the insights they have given us. That doesn't mean that D can't be combined with A, B or C, but the others need to be restrained in order to let this one flourish.

This kind of psychological depth, then, might be most easily achievable by games such as Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, World of Darkness, and Das Schwarze Auge, all of which offer long games without too much focus on existential choices, life-changing experiences or moments of openness. I find this counterintuitive, but pleasing.