Wednesday, July 13, 2016

RPG Worlds as Embodiments of Philosophy

It seems to me that every RPG rules system, and style of gamemastering, selection of back story, dispositions of characters all combine under the umbrella of the Gamemaster's philosophy. The world itself becomes a reflection of the GM's philosophy.

In some cases, such as science fiction, the philosophy is concealed to some degree behind the forefront of whatever the science aspect of the fiction regards. However, despite this appearance, any amount of investigation will likely soon reveal that all of the same aspects apply for science fiction as they do for any other kind of fiction or fantasy. All worlds embody the philosophies of their authors.

In our day and age things have become angst ridden due to the ever present anxiety under which we all are living. Ever since the 2000 stock market crash, which was the dot com bubble bursting, the red flag that told us we are heading into troubled waters, we've suffered a near continuous series of calamities. The Sept 11, 2001 saw the beginning of the Twilight War between Islam and the rest of the world. Then the 2008 Financial Collapse, nearly destroying the entire economic structure of the West, and perhaps the world. And more recently, the Syrian Civil War resulting in a humanitarian and refugee crisis throughout all of Europe, not to mention the ravages of civil war. And all of this is due to conflicts of philosophy both large and small, and spanning the breath and width of civilization. Philosophy, as it turns out, is important. In fact, it governs everything. When philosophies collide we get disasters. However, when Philosophies unite and harmonize we get peace and order. And to a very large degree the choice is ours. It has always been so even from the most remote times of antiquity.

GMs imbue their Worlds with their philosophies. They must. It can't be helped. And it's not a bad thing. Unless those philosophies are so tainted as to pose a danger to those who adhere to them or those around them. Then, of course, it is indeed a bad thing.

But the GMs I've known have chosen to create worlds whose philosophies remained covert, and yet interesting, and often amazing for their originality and depth. I've not been bored in any of them.

On the other hand, I've played in some worlds where there is very little in the way of philosophic content, and generally focus on things like combat tactics and loot. Which is just as fun for me as the next guy. But I also like the other, more literary, if you will, aspect that is also possible in RPGs. It is this potential of literary quality of RPGs that I find truly fascinating, and why I think RPGs hold so much promise for the future. They are in and of themselves a new and wonderful combination of game and art form, drawing in a all manner of skills into one complex yet cohesive activity. I count it among the most brilliant of mankind's inventions to date, along with orchestral music and the wheel.

So the result is that the philosophy of the GM's World is going to have a lot do with how it is perceived by the players. To a large degree it will determine how much, and what kind of fun they have exploring it. They experience the philosophy through all of the events in the world that the GM narrates, as well as the character descriptions, tone of voice, and so forth. 

Some GMs will do this overtly, and it will be quite clear what the underlying philosophy of the world is. It may be something as simple and straight forward as "The Rule of the Strong Prevails", and that's it, or any similar one dimensional viewpoint. For those Worlds one expects to encounter monsters and villains, kill things and take their loot. Because that's the nature of the World. And the players therein share in that nature, or I should say philosophy. Which is of course to be expected.  The RPG is a social event, and takes place within the context of friends.  It would be natural for them to share a common viewpoint. A common philosophy of life.  And so when the game, the world in which they play embodies that philosophy, and this is the game they enjoy because they are familiar with it and it suits them.  Which is all well and fine, naturally.

In other cases the GM may be more circumspect, and the philosophy may be more nuanced and less overt for that reason. These kind of GMs might have several competing philosophies embedded among the races and peoples of their Worlds.  And those philosophies might become the subject of a wide range of Role Playing opportunities for the GM and players to explore.

So different Worlds are going to have, in other words, entirely different characteristics, and in fact entirely different meanings.  A world whose underlying philosophy is nihilism will have entirely different characteristics than one whose philosophy is utopian in nature.  One might have the story revolve around a Dark Lord whose war forces are ravaging the world out of lust for power, and that is the primary underlying story, while another might have the rise of an Athenian style Space Empire at the height of it's glory.  It entirely depends on the philosophy underlying the world's creation.

When we understand this facet of RPGs we can better understand our options, and navigate more purposefully through the experience of this shared collaborative story making we call Role Playing.

If the GM has a sound philosophy, something profound and of interest, then that GM's world will be interesting. Well, to those who might take an interest in such things. Of course not everyone will, and so some players will glance over the underlying aspects of such a world and take little note of it. The philosophies of the GMs shimmer beneath each world's narrative layer, but the truth is, quite often we take little notice of it.  And that's perhaps a bit of shame.  What's going on beneath the surface may be more mysterious and rewarding than the dragon's horde we send our characters off to acquire.

Some GMs will wind up experimenting. They will adopt different philosophies for different worlds in order to try them out and see how that function. In that sense some worlds will become testing grounds for all kinds of philosophic hypotheses. For example, one GM might wish to explore a comparison between democracy and monarchy. Another might wish to examine a particular theme in romantic literature. The possibilities are infinite.

So when I think about world building, I think about the nature of the underlying philosophy I'm imposing on it, and I think about my players and what they may find interesting, and what might make for an interesting mystery or fascinating puzzle, and it gives me something to ruminate over for a few months while we play out the campaign. It also gives me insights in regards to how my players react to the world, and what they come away thinking.

So as I see it, RPGs can be a bit more than simply a bit of hack and slash and murder hoboing about the landscape. I'm not saying that isn't a perfectly fun way to play RPGs, but I am saying that there are other approaches to it, and of varying levels of sophistication.

The Literary RPG Society's primary goal is to collaborate on, brainstorm about, discuss and experiment with techniques that will help GMs derive more interesting worlds, and ones that may more easily result in stories that contain literary elements, or works of artistic merit in their own right. We are a collaborative society of GMs who wish to contribute to the art. Please join us if you feel this is something you'd like to contribute to.
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