Saturday, 16 February 2013

Pathetic enough yet?

The sun is shining on our world and it should for billions of years more, rainclouds or not.

If you saw the link in the appendix to the last post, you can probably guess that I think Dr Bargle's recent post makes an argument important to early gaming. Truth is, I think he may be right. On the essential point: that the pathetic has an often overlooked value.

A question. Why strive for, say, credible probabilities for weapon damage, or worry about associated mechanics, if the character or faction you play, and the party of adventurers or army as a whole, represents incredible probabilities or is by nature disassociated?

Who are these people anyway? How did they get that skill, or that weapon, how did they find themselves in that situation? How do they support themselves? Whether they steal gold or invade worlds, the question remains: if they buy food and drink at the last homely house or carry it out from the provisioner, or if their empire provides the rations and the laser rifles, where other than through these individuals do these things come from?

How many people must there be active in a near-subsistence society to produce enough surplus for adventurers to survive beyond the farm, how many to prepare it, transport it, help store it safely? How much tithe or tax must flow in from the subject worlds to fund a galactic conflict, and how many millions - or trillions - must work in the factories or on the ships to keep that infrastructure moving? From cradle to grave, there would exist social, economic and political structures - feudalism say - to keep the source of survival in motion, a system to ensure there's nowhere to go, no way out but escape. Escape.

But why does an escapee from the grind, or even the privilege, have any particular skill beyond that needed to escape? And how much good will that do them on the fringes or beyond? Some may make it. A few may thrive, as best they can. But what are the odds they all end up together, and so complementary in their range of impressive abilities?

Why not just throw the rules out the window and assume they make all the key rolls?

Yes it's fantasy, or it claims to be, but again: why be consistent in your weapon ranges if not in your demographics? If your fantasy world is anything like the 'real' world - and let's face it, it's likely almost identical, i.e. hardly fantasy at all beyond the (space) elves etc. and the handwaving - then why are your adventurers not shivering around a dying fire, worrying what might crawl in from the dark if the other guy nods off from exhaustion after the trek, wiping their snot on unwashed, crusted sleeves as parasites eradicated in civilised areas grow in their bodies? Why are they not losing control of their bowels as that daemon manifests, as they splash through the blood of their friends fumbling with a torch? Why is their world so sanitised? Anthropomorphic maybe, but they're not like us.

What do we want with this approach? What do the soft edges and expensive sheen do?

Did your parents design you using a point-buy system, or pick you from a $30 supplement of ridiculous anachronisms and contrived cod-heroic poses? (Do those things insult your intelligence?) Today, in the era in which these games are written, illustrated and collected, sometimes played, we can, do and maybe will choose plastic surgery, pick up some bionics, maybe even clone ourselves or engineer our offspring.

But we still have to do that based on a roll made at birth, the base life chances we had, brute good luck or bad. It may be escapist, but if so, what are we escaping? And why?

Seriously now: why on earth should we escape? What is fantasy for and why do we need it? What does the game offer us beyond a pastime, a dream to wake up from? What does it have to offer to help us to exist more happily outside in a more real world?

Feeling good about my fictional character won't help me not need to escape. But feeling bad about my character might help me want not to escape. It might well help me better understand my place - for example, just how pathetic a carbon-based bag of water stuck on a trillion-a-penny rock really is, trapped in a web of obligations running from the real to the unreal - unreal obligations - and believing or not believing in deliverance. If that's how you look at it of course. I don't. Can it help me to accept it? Can it help me resist?

Accept? Resist? It's a pathetic choice. How can it possibly it come to that in any world?

Do YOU accept? If you resist, you'll enter a whole new world, one of real pain. Probably.

And not least from those who accept - y-yes they do - and worry the pain may spill over.

So when that torch finally does go out, and there you are alone in the dark at the end, tired and weak and quite possibly surrounded by many other of the dangerous creatures in your world doomed to die - but in their case not yet - the question is: will YOU mind?



Tallgeese said...

I guess I am the first to respond. There is a lot of food for thought here, especially as I know my parents did not use the point buy system. I have been thinking about this in the context of PCs in FATE Core (whose text repeatedly uses the word "awesome" - which at one point in my life I thought was a stand in for "terror-inducing"). And especially in the context of the most recent Tekumel game I ran, were an option might have been to simply condense, abstract, and collapse a very detailed (and interesting to me) part of the Professor's creation into a few action scenes. I am honestly not sure what would have been the best course. Certainly John Clute has critiqued the notion of "tourism" (detailed world-building and exposition)in fantasy. However that IS kind of the point of planetary romance - or at least one end of the scale - the other balance is the action.

Tallgeese said...

The last post may have sounded rambly and digressive, but at the risk of going on I wanted to say how beautifully written your post was. Sometimes the contrasts between older and newer schools of play are presented with so much polemic that (for me) they shut down reflection and genuine dialogue. I think you did a good job opening up a line of inquiry even further, in a way that provokes deeper thinking.

Porky said...

Barely rambling at all really. Discursion has to be more or less off the page to register here at the Expanse.

I know the dilemma well, and we're definitely not the only ones feeling it, not by a long way. For me moving through the world is almost an end in itself, whatever the ostensible genre.

We often forget though that the GM is a player too, and if the person in the role isn't passionate about evoking the potential of the given setting we might not want them running us through it at all. That's not to give a completely free hand of course - there are other players as well.

The key word may be 'potential'. I'd say again that finding the fun is an art to practise, a balance between offering the best of that potential and a sensitive reading of and response to the other players in realising it.

Thanks for the feedback too. What we tend to forget while in the throes of partisan feeling - in gaming and beyond - is that we can't easily have a discussion, resolve differences and move into new and better spaces if our energies are spent largely in alienating each other and ourselves.

And your mention of how 'awesome' has evolved is intriguing in this context. There could be a lot in that.

Andy Bartlett said...

Thanks, Porky, for this.

"Sometimes the contrasts between older and newer schools of play are presented with so much polemic that (for me) they shut down reflection and genuine dialogue." I will say, with regard to my post that Porky references, that there was no intent to piss as many people off as I have. I thought the not-too-subtle self-deprecation/self-abasement would have suggested the tone in which the rant should be read. Plus, that it'd be read by an audience roughly limited to the 30 or so people who usually read my posts. And then Raggi shared it on Google+...

"We often forget though that the GM is a player too..." I agree. And funnily enough I'd make a case that games that don't shy away from the PCs 'enjoying' pathetic fates are best for reminding us about this. NOT because these pathetic fates are the result of 'dick GMing' determining pathetic fates by GM fiat. But because, by making the fate of the PCs a result of the interaction between the mechanics, the setting, and player choice, the GM can enjoy the unfolding play without worrying about trying to rescue the PCs or put them back on track to the correct solution.

And as for 'awesome'. I've got nothing against the word. I want *some* things in my games to be awesome. And when the PCs come across these things, take part in them, or even are them, I want there to be some sense of awe.

Porky said...

Thank you for making the points you did.

The title was ambiguous of course, but the first couple of lines of the post seem to me more than enough to make the intention clear. Then again, I was likely more tuned in to the thinking from the word go. I took the post as a reasonable expression of a perspective, a friendly discussion, and combative only as far as it was a challenge to the reader to respond in similarly thorough form. I was probably smiling more than once as I read it too, at the clarity and the justifications.

I think you make another good point here. The involvement of the GM in this approach is very much about providing a clear context - consistent internally and/or with the general expectations of the other players, as agreed - then giving the other players space to work very freely with it, responding only as the world would. It's a lot of fun watching events unfold, allowing one possible version of the given reality reveal itself.

Tallgeese said...

Hi Andy:

I hope you didn't interpret my comment as a criticism of you. I certainly didn't mean it that way. I thought your post was provocative; it made me think, and I am glad you wrote it. My comment was more in response to some comments on the post. I am always thinking about how we create more dialogue between different movements within gaming. Things feel very polarized today between OSR and indie gaming, which is a shame, since the strengths of both relate to DIY and the small press.

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