Monday, January 29, 2007

21st Century Nihilism in Story Telling

I just got back from seeing the movie "Smoking Aces".

I want to talk about Nihilism in 21th Century Story Telling.

Let us start with the deep past. Let us return for a few moments to the dawn of the ages when man was young, and knew little language. Let us savor for a few moments the stories of those ancient times. They were adventures of the gods and men, and of the gods and monsters and heroes and kings and the wars of the gods and the giants... and stories of shamen climbing on the backs of birds into the lofty heavens to steal fire, or sacred knowledge of healing, from the gods and return to the world with wisdom. And let us consider who they were who within a such brief span of a few centuries suddenly invented, increadibly all at once, agriculture, mathematics, science, astronomy, writing, architecture, law, cosmology and mythology, and all of the basic foundations of our modern civilization. And now let us take a moment to reflect on how our civilization is constantly transformed, from one form of government to another, with peaks and valleys, yet represents on the whole one long continuous (though bumpy) upward sloping ascent in terms of technical progress for humanity at large. And yet technology has been our boon and our bane. We look upon it, mostly it seems, as a faustian bargain at best, and many people are just dead set against the whole idea and think we ought not have come down from the trees to begin with. Why is this? Because, friends, we have bad stories. Our bad stories are sinking our culture.

What has this to do with RPGs, and the Elthos World in particular? Well, it has been the goal of the Elthos Project to aspire toward something old fashioned and yet, it becomes increasingly clear, important in story telling. The stories themselves are important. The nature of them. The Tone. The meaning. The world view they present.

Go see "Smoking Aces". It is a movie about nihilism, and it gives its nihilistic world view with it. There are many people who will see this movie. It will harm their psyches, and they may respond to that violence with any number of adverse reactions. This is a very violent movie. Probably one of the most violent I've ever seen. But moreso, it is a bad bad story. Amazingly well filmed. A bad story.

And there are some things that can not be turned back, and some wounds that can not be healed. There are others which can, and sometimes wounds healed early can be forgotten. Our minds are wounded. Our hearts are numbed. The madness of the violence which we are exposed to in films such as this are not madenning because of the images of the violence. No, that is not what it is. It is the message of nihilism. The message of the death of honor. The death of all that is good in the world. It is the message of hopelessness. That is what this film transmits to us, the audience. We either accept that message (admiring as well the great artistry that went into its making), or we reject it.

Elthos rejects it. Elthos is not a world about nihilism. It is a world about possibilities. It is a fairytale. A walk into the shaman's doorway. It is a journey into the caverns of the underworld, and the archtypes. Upon the table of Elthos are the pathways of the celestials, the planets in their constellations. Elthos is about lifting the eye aloft toward the snowy peaks and discovering the wonders beyond.

We live in a time of grave doubt. We live in a time of bad stories. Of evil stories. Of stories that kill. The media sells us these stories and almost everyone is buying them.

Elthos is not buying their story.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Maighdean Mhara

All went well for three years until one day the young couple were walking by the loch shore again. This time the monster rose out and it was Finnseang who was dragged under the waters before Murdo Og had a chance to defend her. Murdo Og was wailing and lamenting his lost bride when an old man walking by asked what was wrong.

Murdo Og told him and the old man said: “I will tell you how you can rescue your wife and destroy the monster forever. In the center of the loch is an island. On the Island is a white-footed hind, slender and swift. If you catch the hind, a black crow will spring out of her mouth and if the black crow were caught, a trout would fall out of her beak, and in the mouth of the trout would be an egg. Now in the egg is the soul of the monster. If you crush the egg, the monster will die.”
When I read this passage I was struck by the simplicity and natural forthrightness of the flow of the story. Here is magic at its most enigmatic, and it is at the same time handled without flourish or frills. We are told that the magic is of a certain nature and we are expected to accept that this is magic of an enchanted realm and that the magic works as such. I liked the matter of fact-ness of the way the scene is described and my feeling is that it is the attributes of simplicity and forthrightness regarding an enigma that makes the story not only work, but moreover, great literature, as is evidenced by its vast longevity.

Then I was thinking about how a Gamesmaster could make such stories. Is it legitimate, for example, for the Gamesmaster who might be playing out this above described Adventure to show up as the old wise man Non-Player Character with the magical knowledge, and even the exact solution to the problem? Well, almost it does, but it becomes something of Deus Ex Machina, one feels, and I think we can legitimately question if that would be truly satisfying. After all, it is the seeming spontaneity of the events in the story that make them charming. So how does the Gamesmaster go about creating truly literary quality stories, where the Characters (both Player and Non-Player) act in ways that convey the same kinds of qualities as we find in the fairytales and ancient legends of old? The author of the ancient tales was able to imbue his tales with a depth of meaning and his characters with significance that makes them accessible to everyone who reads them, even now after many centuries, even though the world has changed so incredibly. Still the stories speak to us out of the depths of time. They still have meaning for us. This is the nature of Literary Quality stories.

But in a Role Playing Game it’s hard to achieve this. The author has a great advantage over the Gamesmaster and Players in this regard – for the author every Character is far more likely to do what he wants and expects and directs them to than in an RPG. This fundamental difference makes it much more difficult to achieve truly Great Stories. However, it can be done, and it’s our job to see that it is done. The question I keep asking us to consider is, how?

Well there’s so much RPG Theory out there, and yet my feeling about it, in sum, is “hogwash” and “fiddlesticks”. What the Theorists wish to do is to establish rules by which RPGs can be understood and make it something a little more of a science than I think is possible for an art. They seem to think that through study and diligent analysis RPG Player and Gamesmaster behavior (and feelings) can be factually and accurately described, process flowed, and manipulated, just as a biologist might describe the interactions of a microbe, or a psychiatrist describe a patient’s spiritual epiphany. But RPGs are not subject to this analysis any more than is art or spirituality. In fact, it really comes down to the fact that you can not codify the spirit. As such, there is no Science of Making Beautiful Art. There is a great deal of scientific (or analytic) commentary on Literature, it’s styles, modes, periods, forms and the myriad of other things that Academics and Scholars like to study. And all of it is well and good. But Hemingway did not go to school to learn all of this in order so that he could become a great author. He wrote. He wrote from the genius of his heart and mind, and he took the world around him in all of its glory and pain and translated it into words for posterity’s sake. There is no science to cause him to do this. In fact, were he to have tried to do this via a scientific method (or Gamesmastered according to Theory) I seriously doubt he would have produced the wonders he did. So that’s my criticism, anti-Intellectual as it may be.

The designing of a Role Playing Game is a science, I’ll agree with that, though also say that it is in equal measure an art. The playing of a Role Playing Game, however, is Art. To overcomplicate, and over analyze the art is to kill its spirit. And for the Role Player who wishes for immersion, well, it’s better by far to achieve it spontaneously through a connection to the greatness of the story, than it is to strive for it via contrivance and theory-driven methodology. I really don’t see how you can get there from there using that vehicle.

And so my conclusion, since I know immersion does exist, having experienced it myself, like a mystic journey, is something I would call Spiritual, and not something to be reduced to a set of psycho-schematics and mental process-flows. Which is why I’ve been so engrossed in Shamanism lately, trying to learn and study how our greatest and most long lived stories have emanated from Shamanistic experiences of the long forgotten past, perhaps before the first town was even constructed. Now back to my questions: how can Gamesmasters and Players create truly literary quality stories via their games? And really, is it legitimate for the Gamesmaster to show up as Deus Ex Machina, and for the Players to follow certain pathways pro-forma? Well yes, of course – it all depends on the timing, the mood, the Players, the phase of the moon, and how many butterfly wings flapped along the beach on the coast of Hawaii in the year 1200 BC.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year

Well, the Elthos ODS ("One Die System") project achieved its second major milestone right on time for the New Years. The upshot is that there is now the Elthos ODS Rules Book and an Internet Application that supports the rules with a variety of utilities that take the grunt out of the usual array of Gamesmaster's grunt-work. It allows the GM or Player to roll new characters and store them online. Players (or the GM) can choose their Character's class, add skills, and purchase equipment, armor and weapons. The Gamesmaster can create Worlds, Places in their world, and create Campaigns which are associated to Adventure Groups. All of the data is stored online for easy access from anywhere and provides a set of reports for the GM and Players which include (or will soon), Character Stats Report, General Resolution Matrix, along with some other useful information about the game system. So all of this is a big victory for me. Very exciting.

The next phase is going to be even harder for me. The Where-to-go-from-here aspect. I'm not entirely stumped, but I have a lot of thinking to do in order to pull this all together and make it successful. I think its easy to throw stuff out there, but its hard to do it the right way and make it really succeed. So the next step is to step back from the project actually and THINK about where I want this to go from here. I have a lot of options, and I have a lot of research and thinking to do. But all in all I'm pleased with the project's progress. The next step after that is probably going to entail some Marketing Consultations, and finding a good spot to host the website. I'm thinking if all goes well I might be able to get this online sometime in the February - March timeframe. Stay tuned. More to come on the Elthos Project soon.

Well, that's the news for now. Happy New Years everyone!