Monday, April 6, 2009
I recall the very first time I sat at a game table with a battle mat. The DM drew a long, 20' wide passageway and asked us to place our figures in marching order. Someone asked if one of the squiggly lines was just a mistake, since it exceeded the grid marks by a 1/4 square in several places, so the DM used a folder edge to redraw & conform the line to the grid. Instantly, I knew he was going to map out everything ahead of us as we moved through the dungeon. I was stunned by a sense of loss, where everyone else seemed to think of it as a convenient innovation.
Previous to crossing this dividing line, I had endured years of getting lost on maps made for their difficulty. Frustrating though that often was, my sense of loss at the battle mat was my sense of adventure being sucked out of my brain. I quickly became bored, as we were constantly watching the DM draw the map in front of us, often erasing huge portions, like a lecturing professor who thinks they must write everything they're saying out loud. During these moments, I went off the grid, so to speak. I spent time imagining the shock of the character's as a great hand constructed the walls of their world ahead of them. I tried to imagine exactly how that absurdity would work. I recall also being particularly amused by the theological implications resulting from moments when the DM would reconsider his map and make painstaking alterations to his battle mat pen work.
Undeniably, the supplies we've used to create our worlds have conformed them to subtle metaphysical rules. Millions of pages of graph paper have conformed the adventuring experience to a basically square experience. Anthropologists describe the world we westerners live in as a square world. Our houses and streets are relatively square. Whereas, many tribal cultures live in a round world, where their most basic structures are round (by no coincidence, Gary's college work was in anthropology.) Of course, the popular interpretation of this difference is that round is organic and natural, and square is artificial. This also correlates well to the idea that pen and paper gaming is natural and computer gaming is artificial, as if pen and paper gaming wasn't also constrained by limiting conventions.
Robert and I disagree a bit on this. I'm a computer geek, and I believe there is hope for a more fluid and virtuous computerized fantasy role playing experience, even if I suspect that I may be doomed to begrudgingly admit he's right. Computerized play may never admit to the beauty of direct interpersonal experience. But, we do watch movies instead of attend the theater, and there was a time when theater in the round was considered the best way to holistically experience a play. Still, I'm recently drawn to experiment with virtual tabletops, such as Fantasy Grounds or Battlegrounds. However, it appears that one of them might not allow you to mask parts of the map, which means you have to chunk your map up into presentable parts in order to limit the player's view. And how do you chunk up organic settings like the fluid turns of caves? In any case, the move from smooth hewn passageways into caves, perhaps carved by erosion or burrowing, marks more adventure. Imagine the surprise possible where monsters live in the square spaces and humans live in the caves of the dungeon - the grid/non-grid exepectancies reversed.
Sometimes you know you're getting into some adventure when you encounter a pattern that can only be interpreted on a large scale, which only had a loose structure on the small scale. Now, just how do you discover this on a battle map or when using a virtual table top? The magic of gradual realization is lost in such mediums. For example, consider this map on the right here. Imagine the odd spiral of chunks as gigantic stepped pillars. The ceiling is too high for light to touch, thus the chunks appear on the map as walls, not gigantic stepping stones.
You can see how I am gradually realizing the extent of my agreement with Robert, even if I am stubbornly pro computer. But what does this mean?
I see the rigid artifacts of our gaming materials, wherein we see that we have already conformed ourselves to a grid, in the same way as I see the effects of computing on gaming, or movies on plays. It doesn't mean there isn't a magnificent art to delight in. It just means that different signs and methods are used to reproduce Peter Pan's magic. Our magical Pan may be strung up on stage, while on TV he's framed by a rectangular viewing port, yet his flight appears free of attached strings. There's a trade off. And to end these thoughts, since they could sprawl into the gigantic "extense" of another 30 columns of text, we can be certain there were critics of theater in the round, who must have seen within it the hand of the devil... perhaps descending upon the audience... from above, where balconies no longer protected the aristocratic viewer... who could be seen by anyone looking through the play....
“Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.” - Exodus 23:20
My thoughts go out to Dave, tonight, may peace be with him.