Wednesday, October 21, 2009

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.


Alexis Smolensk said...

Whatever anyone says, you are spot on the mark where it comes to picaresques. What's more, you've convinced me that the book I've just finished writing and that I'm currently flogging is, in fact, a picaresque. I never intended it to be - it is a series of short stories built around a specific theme - but it is in fact exactly what you describe.

However, I don't know how important that is to D&D. Unlike a book, which can be examined again once it's read, D&D is generally carried on in real time, and the memory of the events is limited by the same memory of any event that occurs in our natural lives. The overall game can't really be describes as a picaresque any more than real life is ... granting, of course, that that is the purpose of Heller's Catch-22. He wanted to capture a slice of life in his North African military framework, arguing that none of it made any real sense, that it wasn't a novel. Picaresques, by capturing life, simultaneously ask us to look for patterns while positively denying that they might exist.

So from when my party killed those 60 gnolls last year, there is no written account, there are no photographs or other documentation. D&D in that sense IS reality and not a picaresque. It is experience, as David Cronenberg's bad film Videodrome tried to investigate. The player who sits down to make decisions for his character today is not the same person as the one who sat to play his character four years ago.

A writer of a picaresque can't say the same, as ultimately however long it takes for the writer to produce the work, it will be edited all at once, and often by someone else. Furthermore, the writer is not writing the book as a joint venture between multiple people, some of which only appeared for a few months at some point of the campaign.

You make a fine connection, and it was very definitely worth making. It is enlightening, however short it falls from the point. You write a brilliant rant, Sir.

Anonymous said...

I guess what I'm saying is that real narrative meaning occurs in D&D in those "Han Solo moments" more than in planned story arcs.

Though I agree--the game is an experience.

Matthew Slepin said...

I'm desperately trying to think of something clever to say here, but I'm not, so I'll have to settle for: very well said, sir.

Felipe Budinich said...

"It is enlightening, however short it falls from the point."

Even if it falls short, It does hit closer to the mark than what is usually understood as a roleplaying game by game designers and marketing departments.

And I think that these latest "discoveries" in roleplayingsophism (or role playing game design theory, or whatever you like to call it), can help us create better games.

I think game designers can create a better product by being honest with their customers, because if you offer a game that can emulate "epic quests and superheroic characters", and then proceeds to show you a game that can be better described as a picaresque... well you are betraying expectations.

If you are honest and sell your product for what it is, you'll hear no one complaining.

ravenconspiracy said...

Love your post. (heehee)

The thought of Style becoming Substance fits Vance very well and also reinforces the old-school idea that player quality, particularly DM quality is paramount.

I can say that all of my very best plot threads and NPC moments came about not because of careful pregame crafting, but because they came to life suddenly inside the gamespace when I clicked with the idea/NPC and/or my players grabbed them wholeheartedly (often to my complete surprise).

These moments/characters were made special because of the style of thier execution in play, not just my style as the DM, but also dependent on the style of the player response.

DMs have to be alert and ready to reinforce the "gems" the players find/acknowlege in play.

Ragnorakk said...

Very thoughtful pair of musings here (pts I & II), and in my preferences, the emergent story of play is far more interesting than, say, 'fated' play - sort of where the art side takes over in the art/science of RPG.

Chris said...

Ever since doing "Hard Times" and "Great Expectations" in Eng Lit I've been of the opinion that Dickens (who was only finally acknowledged as the king of literary episodic narrative thanks to the ranting of H.R.Leavis) would 'get' D&D.

Both Chuck and the DM start out with only a rough idea of where the story might be going, then desperately lay track ahead of the onrushing deadline, adding fun stuff/their own hobby horses to taste.

Oh, and "Pickwick Papers" is a masterclass in creating NPCs.

This article: Ctrl-S, oh yes indeed.

David Larkins said...

Great analysis indeed. I get what you're saying, that if we must make a comparison between RPGs and dramatic structure, picaresque is the best way to describe traditional D&D. That's a fantastic definition of picaresque stories and one I'll definitely be referencing in the future whenever I'm asked to define the essence of D&D (or most RPGs, come to that).

I'd say that most of my campaigns tend to fall into the Star Trek matrix you outline--overall picaresque with mini dramatic story arcs.

I've found in my own experience that it's possible to run successful dramatic tragedy model campaigns, but only in short mini-campaigns; once the immediate concerns of the story arc are resolved, there's little to carry the campaign forward into a new "chapter," no matter how successful the campaign has been up to that point.

rainswept said...
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Kent said...
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vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

Epic read. Vance plugs are always a great how-to. Goin thru all your posts slowly.

Unknown said...

Awesome! Couldn't have said it better myself.

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richard said...

so I'm only a couple of years late. Yes, this is very smart. CoC insists that it's tragic for individual characters (or you're Doing It Wrong) but it winds up being picaresque overall, often actually with individual characters.
I am in a disagreement with everyone else about Moby Dick: I'm focused on the picaresque and everyday in it, everyone else is focused on the big tragic ending. I tried really hard to enjoy Lost for its picaresque qualities, but nobody else would come with me there, either.

You might be interested in Robin Laws' thing about iconic and dramatic heroes.

Jens D. said...

This is very good stuff indeed! I think you describe a huge and important part of how ANY rpg works, not only D&D. But, in my opinion anyway, it's only part of it. Storytelling is another important part of it, as it is a conscious and individual decision of a DM what playground the picaresque is set in (rules, setting, themes, etc.), what toys are laying around and how all that changes with time in addition to how the players change it. This might be an overall storyarc, the chronological changes in the setting or the describtion and deeds of any spontaneously ingame created villain. Sure, it might be solved the Conan way or the Spock way, it might stay backround noise, but without it, there would be no game either. My point is, there are other gamerelevant layers to this, even in D&D, that give the picaresque aspect of a game context and meaning without being derived from game mechanics.

howandwhy99 said...

I've thought with Gygax having died, being in a post-Gygaxian D&D world for more than 20 years prior to that, that D&D is never going to be the game he made it again. Just as Tolkien isn't written by his son or authors who tried to imitate his worlds. The author is the authority because they are seen as the essential source (not because we make them so). But then again, even authors change.

Zak Sabbath said...

I have no idea what you're talking about.