Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Up The Beanstalk

A follow-up on the fun of role-playing. Thanks to Greg from Ontario for inspiring this entry!

Earlier on this blog, I alleged that gradually, modern game design discarded the Enchanting value of role-playing games in favour of a self-contained, self-fulfilling gaming logic. The fun of the game came from the rules, and the rules provide the fun of the game. To improve the fun of the game, one must then improve the rules.

I believe this is a false premise that just ends up divorcing role-playing games from their unique nature as products of our imaginations.

We play role-playing games, I believe, because one day we felt enthused by the idea of being Jack, now and forevermore, climbing up the beanstalk.

What does this mean? What made this moment so special? What happens then that does not occur, or to a much lesser degree, when playing Diablo, World of Warcraft or when reading the Lord of the Rings for the first time?

I believe the answer resides in countless tales and legends we’ve heard, read, witnessed ourselves at a very young age. This is the substance of what built the Arthurian tradition, the appeal of Greek Myths, the allure of Sagas. What made the stories of Cuchulain, Hercules and Erik the Red ring true for us as young lads. What Jean Markale called this “Eternal now where all the contradictions blend into each other”.

This is the nature of Myth which gives us this ability to connect with what it means to be alive. To quote Jean Markale from Le Roi Arthur et la Société Celtique (King Arthur and the Celtic Society) :

Imagination is real in the sense that it is a reality of thought and that the one imagining is persuaded of the reality of that which he imagines at the very moment this process intervenes. Once again, reality is movement, movement of thoughts which can only cease to exist in the stasis of death, of non existence. Imagination, in this regard, is a personal, subjective movement of individual thought, which can however be transmitted to others, alienated within the context of the tale. Others are then free to consider the tale as real or imaginary: it will in any case result in a movement of another’s thoughts, and this movement will thus acquire a quality of reality, however different this reality might be from the original input. Epic tales, legends and myth are thus perpetual movements of thought which now and forevermore create the Now where all contradictions blend into each other. There is no more Past or Future but an eternal Now which is the only existing proof of a reality of the Mind.

This, I believe, is why we play role-playing games. It is not necessarily, and as a matter of fact, often isn’t, a conscious decision on our parts. We might play because we want a pause from the tribulations of our daily lives, what some would call “escapism”, of all things, while in fact we are doing exactly the reverse: we reach forward to share this perpetual movement of thought that existed since the dawn of time. We take part, not only as witnesses like so many before us, but as actors, due to the inherent magic of role-playing, in a tradition that depicts humanity in its moments of suffering, despair, hope and glory, a Now that makes sense of all contradictions and communicates to us what it truly means to be Human.

I know some will scoff at this. “I play to have fun. D&D is just a game”. It is absolutely true. What I am trying to wrap my mind around here is what, exactly, is fun about role-playing games. It’s not about some pompous definition designed to make the game greater than it already is. It’s not to create some sort of agenda that would point out right and wrong ways to enjoy role-playing games. Not at all.

It is about what makes role-playing so appealing in the first place. It’s about that very first moment we played role-playing games and felt Enchanted by the premises before us.

This notion points out not only the fundamentally social nature of this game which reaches well beyond the gaming table into the unknown depths of our very own souls, but also why the game may feel so right, so personal, so engaging to many of us. This is where we trim ourselves to our bare bones and gaze at ourselves through the eyes of fictional characters in a land of make-believe. This is where we feel we exist, where we can grasp the vibrant reality of our very minds.

We climb up the beanstalk and stare at what makes us truly alive.

Now, and Forevermore.

1 comment:

Rob Kuntz said...

All very good points. The realm of Fantasy and Games when merged should maintain an intricate balance, siding more with the Fantasy if there is to be inequality amongst the two. RPGs that side with stringent (or too many) rules, proceed down that lonely path and certainly forsake the other more important one. The original play-testers of D&D in 1972 knew this, even though many were game designers of very complex rules-sets, for both board- and miniature-games. There is the difference, really. A true GAME DESIGNER (not just a designer of its particles, i.e., a "RULES
DESIGNER") measures the form and the task ahead, balancing the parts as realized and as needed, thus perfecting the form, which in D&D's case sided with a free-form environment as then realized and promoted. RPGs are in part rules, but the play will always be the key to how much fun they can and should be.