Where The Action Is (Part 2) (Grognardia, Jack Vance, The Meaning of Life etc.)
(This post follows the logic of the last one--about the original D&D x.p. system--so if you haven't read that, you might want to start there.)
How There's Meaning In A Game of D&D Even If You Don't Know It
As James M. over at Grognardia has pointed out before, D&D emulates a picaresque--a story that is essentially a series of short stories about the same character strung together which may or may not develop an obvious theme or meaning.
Other picaresques include: James Joyce's "Ulysses', all mainstream superhero comics, Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories (a huge influence on D&D), "Don Quixote", Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas", Jack Kerouac's "On the Road", Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian", all unplanned serialized adventures (like a cliffhanger TV or radioshow that goes on for years and has 20 writers), Joseph Heller's "Catch-22", etc.
The late George Plimpton on picaresques:
Such novels are invariably lengthy, heavily populated with eccentrics, deviates, grotesques with funny names (so they can be remembered), and are usually composed of a series of bizarre adventures or episodes in which the central character is involved, then removed and flung abruptly into another. Very often a Quest is incorporated, which keeps the central character on the move.
James M has this to say on Picaresques and D&D:
My feeling is that one's level of dissatisfaction with D&D is closely related to one's dissatisfaction with picaresque stories. If your preference is for something more "epic" than a bunch of rogues -- possibly with hearts of gold -- on the make, then you're likely to see D&D as lacking in some way.
As someone who liked Thomas Pynchon's picaresque "Gravity's Rainbow" so much I once drew a picture for every single page of it, I think it's fairly obvious where I stand.
The picaresque is derived (a little bit ironically, considering James' choice of words), from a pattern found in epic poems (early ones like Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, not later ones like The Aeneid or Paradise Lost) which were, themselves, stitched together from series' of short stories about individual heroes and gods. (These shorter sub-stories are often built around a character cleverly solving one individual problem without too terribly much character development happening all at once--like a Sherlock Holmes story or the stories of Hercules' labors.)
The most familiar other kind of story--let's call it "traditional drama"--is derived less from epics than from tragic theater--this type of story is the one where the plot is largely an extension of the characters' personalities and flaws, this kind has a fairly obvious moral, and the The Law of Conservation of Detail is observed relatively carefully--this is the efficient kind of story that you find in mainstream melodramatic novels, "Madame Bovary", the majority of literary novels (good and bad), individual episodes of sitcoms, Shakespeare, most Hollywood movies, and, as far as I can tell, in the ambitions of most people who want more "story" or "meaning" in their games.
In short, if there's a gun in the first scene of a traditional drama, it's probably Chekhov's gun but if there's a gun in the first scene of a picaresque, it's probably just Chekov's gun.
(TV shows like Star Trek are kind of both, actually--an individual episode may be a tragedy-derived traditional drama--a character has a quirk and the end of the episode revolves around addressing that quirk--but the series taken as a whole--as one long multi-year story--is inevitably a picaresque since there's no way to tie up every last implied character arc before the show ends. The same occasionally goes for heroes in series' of novels or novellas--an individual James Bond story might be a traditional drama--but the overarching "story of James Bond" is a picaresque.)
Obviously, there are hybrids of these two ("The Hobbit" might be an easy example--part Bilbo-learns-about-life part random-wacky-adventure) but what I'd like to do now that I've gotten the distinction out of the way is point out how a kind of meaning or depth or character development does emerge, even in the purest picaresque.
Building a long story one-short-story-at-a-time by the picaresque method allows the story to be uniquely expressive of the builder's own personality (as opposed to the builder's intentions), as one anonymous commenter ("the emonator") (not me) points out in the comments to another of James M's recent posts: D&D exposes the hidden theme within the DM. A spontaneous story evolves out of the dice rolls and lethal rules, the player's actions and personality, and the personality and interpretation of the DM.
In OD&D characters carve out an emergent history action by action, roll by roll, with some awareness that they might be snuffed out at any time by the rules or a fickle DM...This creates a gameworld which is strange, does not conform to many bread&butter narrative tropes, and is often senseless in a cause/effect kind of way.
The only books that I have read which felt like this were Jack Vance's Dying Earth writings.
As an example, seemingly major characters often appear and disappear in the story with little lasting impact and many seemingly important McGuffins are brought up and dropped with little lasting effect to the story.
Best of all, Vance's characters respond to important mind blowing things in a nonplussed and often irritated manner, EXACTLY LIKE SOME VETERAN PLAYERS DO!
In Vance's Dying Earth, there is little of consequence despite the scope of many of the adventures. This is mostly because the Earth is nearing its inevitable end. Yet the characters, while generally aware of this, behave with often great gusto and luxurious language while doing little to nothing to try and "fix" the sun. The only character who even think it is possible are treated as imbiciles by Cugel.
What all this makes me think about:
-Jack Vance and James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon and Miguel Cervantes and Hunter S. Thompson and the guys who wrote The Wire for HBO and most other well-known purveyors of picaresques are not just known for being picaresque writers, they are known for being very stylish writers. That is, they tend not to be of the less-is more/plainer-is-better school when it comes to density of the language.
-This suggests that meaning in a picaresque, or in a game that develops a picaresque narrative style is conveyed less by the fates of the characters than by the style in which the tale is told.
-i.e. When you cease to use plot developments as your main conveyor of message and meaning--style is substance. And substance can be found there.
-The Grognardia post that commenter was commenting on was about how people who came after RE Howard and JRR Tolkien used ideas from their worlds, but not their themes. The reason is, I think, those worlds grew organically from those themes. If you take, say, a hobbit, much of what JRRT thought about the world could be deduced from:
*The fact that he invented them, and *the fact that he chose to make them the heroes of his stories
In much the same way you can reconstruct someone's DNA from a drop of their blood, you can reconstruct a good writer's worldview from the stylistic choices and inventions in their work. This isn't on purpose, this is just what happens when you're trying to do a good job--your personality sinks in there.
Sucky writers who used barbarians and hobbits etc. later were largely sucky because they didn't realize (or, sometimes, care) that the very shape and substance of the sandbox they were playing in was devised to reflect someone else's psyche and if they were going to be good at fantastic literature they couldn't just pile a little bit of plot and a few cosmetic or political ideas on top of someone else's inventions and style, they had to re-invent the genre to reflect something that was in them, and that, therefore, they could see all the way to the bottom of. This doesn't mean imposing your own worldview on the world in some obvious way that reflects your value system, it means letting the world reflect your actual imagination. -Look at comic books, the pre-eminent purveyor of serial-format adventure: Spider-Man isn't really about what eventually will happen to Spider-Man when the comic ends one day (that last issue right before the sun explodes), or indeed about any character development that happens to Spider-Man during a story arc (since the writer of a given issue is aware that all character development in comics is reversible)--Spider-Man is really about what you know you'll get when you pick up any issue of Spider-Man. That is: a guy who looks scary and alien and ominous yet is simultaneously friendly and funny and humble getting through life by defeating jackasses who are full of themselves. The weird visuals came from the psychedelic, agoraphobic mind of Steve Ditko, the jokes came from Stan "the living PR department" Lee. There's more meaning to understand there than in, say, how Spider-Man's failure to stop the Green Goblin meant Gwen Stacy died.
-One could argue that serial heroic fiction in general is less about the moral meaning of what happens to the characters than about modelling different styles by which a person can get through life and defeat obstacles. The Spock style is not the Kirk style, and the Conan style is not the Elric style is not the James Bond style, and the Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac style is not the Raoul Duke/Hunter Thompson is not the Don Quixote style.
Conan can save the world by eviscerating the man-scorpion, Spock can save the world by tricking the man-scorpion into eating the poisonous jubjub fruit, James Bond could save the world by seducing the man-scorpion's wife and then planting a bomb in his bedroom--different heroes model different methods.
If these were heroes in a Greek (or Shakespearean) tragedy, we would undestand them and their flaws in terms of what eventually happened to them--but this isn't the way picaresque heroes work. Picaresque heroes' fates in the end are always the same--at the end of each episode, they are back on the road, ready for the next adventure. If they eventually die on the page, that death is not necessarily tied to events put in motion earlier, and therefore the death is not as integral to the story as the death of a tragic character--whose method-of-death is, in a sense, the point of the whole fatalistic story.
In a sense, nothing ever happens to James Bond or James Kirk--they just go on forever demonstrating a way in which heroism can work. The serial or picaresque hero is not designed in tandem with the plot (as he or she is in a one-shot work like, say, "Hamlet" or "Pride and Prejudice" or "Napoleon Dynamite"):--rather the plots of serial or picaresque adventures are designed to test and stretch and display and probe the many posibilities of the already invented hero. Just like in an rpg.
-So this is what a D&D party so often is: not a group of people necessarily destined to grow and change and bend to conform to Principles of Drama, but a group of people who demonstrate, with infinite variation, how you can get through life by enacting different styles of being week after week in different short stories.
And what styles are these? These are styles that emerge organically from the psychologies of the people playing them, and styles that, from a distance all look like "pulp fantasy" but, on further insepction, reveal shades of differences in tactics and role-playing that are really differences in outlook. And when you put these differences in outlook together in a crowded matrix of poorly-lit 10x10 rooms for a few months, you get drama. And comedy. And it's all a surprise. And it's fun.
It was great when, somewhere in the middle of Star Trek:TNG, Data and Worf emerged as the funniest characters in the series. The android and the Klingon. Nobody saw that coming, but it was in the actors, and that's far more interesting than the cast and writers' constant, conscious planned-from-the-beginning atttempts to convince us that Wesley and Whoopi Goldberg were supreme space geniuses capable of solving any problem.
In Empire, George Lucas wanted it to go:
Leia: "I love you" Han: "I love you, too." (into the carbonite chamber.)
But, on the spur of the moment, just before the crew was supposed to break for lunch, they ran it and Leia said: "I love you." and Han said "I know."
If you want a "meaning" to the Han Solo character it's more in that moment (a moment the "player" just threw in) than in that obviously pre-marital kiss he shares with Leia at the end of the Jedi (a moment of character development and plot resolution that'd been planned more-or-less since they first told Lucas he'd get to write a Star Wars sequel).
-And in the end, that surprise "meaning"--the revealed meaning of what's inside the people playing individually and as a group--the subtle differences between what they as people find compelling and interesting and generally effective even when they're not trying to is as real and meaningful a meaning (for those who care about looking around for such things once the blood's dry and the owlbears are dead) then any kind of meaning that a DM or storygamey consortium of players puts together on purpose.
-Everybody likes heroes and wants bad guys to lose, so that's not the surprise or the meaning and so the fact that someone decides to play a hero tells you nothing new about the human condition. The interesting bit is which hero and how they defeat the bad guys.
Post-rant note: I'd love to hear anybody's thoughts on this BUT I know from long experience that when you use specific examples (Star Wars, Conan, Catch-22) in something like this, you tend to get a lot of comments nit-picking about whether the specific examples fit the ideas you're putting forward rather than whether the ideas are any good. SO--please don't do that. If you think, say, "On The Road" isn't a picaresque, fine, great, I believe you, that's ok, let's move on.
Another note: I'm not much of a Tolkien fan, actually, or a Trek fan. But they offer pretty good examples.