Saturday, October 14, 2006

On Role Playing Games as a Shamanistic Journey

In whatever festival, the Fool always played an indeterminate role, somewhere between good and evil, and somewhere between the actors in the battle and the audience, often burlesquing the activity of the actors, as well as the emotional reaction of the audience. He was an interpreter, a shamanic character who moved between the worlds of the stage and the audience. He identified with both sides, and yet belonged to neither.

- “Fire in the Head”, by Tom Cowan, p. 62

This passage reflects upon an idea that has been rolling around my head for a few weeks now that I have begun to explore the space of Shamanism in medieval and ancient literature.

Is it possible that the Gamesmaster could play the role of Shaman Guide in the Player Character’s exploration of their Worlds? In the case of the actual Shaman Guide, where the Shaman acts as the interpreter moving between the stage and the audience, we might see such a reflection. The Fool at the Festival being spoken of in the passage is presented as a character in a play being shown to an audience. The Fool plays the interpreter of the Actor’s Actions to the Audience, often mocking or satirizing the Actor’s motives and the consequences of their actions to reveal moral truths underlying the Play’s story line. If we superimpose on this the activities of the standard Role Playing Game we come to some interesting analogs.

The first is that in the usual RPG there is no audience. Or rather we might say that the Players are the audience. The Player Characters are the Actors. The Gamesmaster might be said to play the role of the Fool, or Shaman Guide through their World, as well as in some sense the Director or Play Writer. So the intrinsic structure of the event is somewhat different, but in the essentials it could be constructed as an analog, though some effort would have to be made to make this work out.

The wise fool, as we know him from Shakespear’s plays, had precedents in the poets and seers who served Celtic chieftains. Enid Welsford, in her study “The Fool: His Social History and Literary History”, points out that in ancient Celtic tales the poets and seers were often called Fools. Like their later counterparts in royal courts, the chieftains valued the poet’s insights and respected his ability to satirize (satire is a “twilight” literary form, somewhere between truth and falsehood, seriousness and silliness). Like the shaman, poets were respected for more than their storytelling talents or their ability to entertain. They had special vision and wisdom; they had magical powers. Welsford notes that “the Fool is a creator not of beauty but of spiritual freedom.” The same is true of the poet.

- “Fire in the Head”, by Tom Cowan, p. 65

My question is, could the same be true of the Gamesmaster? And if so, how would it be possible to conduct a Shamanistic Journey via a Role Playing Game? I’m not suggesting that this would be easy. I’m not suggesting that Role Playing Games are currently constructed with this effect in mind. However, there are enough similarities between the Storytelling magic of the Shaman’s Journey, and the act of Role Playing, that it might be possible. And if so, would it be worthwhile to explore further this space? At least in relation to Shaman Characters within a Role Playing Game?

This concept, perhaps, opens a doorway into the possibility of exploring the deeper realms of the mind and spirit via RPGs, which might be ventured by Gamesmaster’s and Players who have the intention to allow themselves, or actively are seeking the experiences of a form of “spiritual freedom” which RPGs can and often do facilitate. The experience which we call in the RPG world “immersion” may be a reflection of just that process. We feel that we have actively entered into another World. What is the nature of this Other World? In most cases it is the World that the Gamesmaster has invented. Therefore the nature of that World is of paramount importance to the quest of finding ourselves Immersed. We can be immersed, after all, in almost any kind of World (or what we might think of as mental-spiritual space). If the Gamesmaster’s own inner world is filled with demons, then we might find our Player Characters exploring Hell and its domains. If the Gamesmaster’s inner world is filled with angels we might find our Player Characters exploring Heavenly places, and meeting with Angels and on Holy Quests. Thus, as Players we are either repelled or attracted to certain Worlds. This, if the thread holds true, would then be more of a reflection of our own inner worlds – we are attracted to those Worlds which “make sense” to us, and repelled by those which don’t. And so, Gamesmasters may already be conducting Shamanistic Journeys with their Players without necessarily recognizing them as such. While on the other hand, depending on the mood, proclivity and intention of both the Gamesmaster and Players, the game may not take on that aspect at all. I could see this in the case of the standard Dungeon Crawl, where the dungeon is created as a series of rooms, numbered and assigned treasures, and provided with randomly selected monsters from the Monster Manual. The group in this case may really only be interested in a few basic RPG functions – the slaying of monsters, the acquisition of treasures and the accumulation of experience points with which to “level up” and achieve more Skills and Powers. Yet, if we look deeply, might we not see even in this seemingly mundane RPG adventure, the hallmarks of greater themes in literature – and in the magical effects within these Adventures hints of the Shaman’s Journey? And if so, how much further along might we be able to travel on those ancient paths if we are aware of the underlying spiritual memes by which we are operating?


Matt Staggs said...

Nice blog!
I've often thought myself about the similarities between the role of the GM and that of the ceremonial story-teller and keeper of mysteries.

Since you seem to have an interest in myth and psyche, I have to ask: have you read "Mythago Wood" by Robert Holdstock?

Check it out. It's fiction, but I think it will really resonate with some of the ideas that you're discussing here.

vbwyrde said...

Thanks you for the vote of confidence. I appreciate that. No I haven't read it. I'll go check on it. Thank yo for the reference. If you want to add it to our reading list database on yahoo group LRPGSW please join the group and add whatever you think appropriate to the database called Recommended_Readings. We'd appreciate your input. Well, thanks again for the suggestion. I'll let you know in a later post what I think of it. Btw, I'm about to get my hands on a copy of Charles William's "The Place of the Lion". Have you read that one? I am thinking it should be really ... amazing.

Matt Staggs said...

I haven't read that one, but I have a pretty big library of mythology, folklore and mythopoeic literature.
I'll try to find a copy of it.