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.

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