Friday, January 23, 2009

Being There

Over on Grognardia, James Maliszewski wrote:

I don't think pre-fab campaign settings need to be impediments to creation through play. Indeed, in some cases, they can be great spurs to creativity. I do think, though, that there's a danger inherent in such settings and that's the false perception that there's a "right" way to play in T├ękumel or Greyhawk or Glorantha. Once this pernicious idea takes hold, you close yourself off to many terrific possibilities and contribute to the reduction of roleplaying games to an activity of passive consumption rather than active engagement no different than watching movies or television. This is the reason why analogies with those media tend to raise my hackles. It's not that I think there's anything wrong with wanting one's campaign to be as exciting and "alive" as the best movies or TV shows; it's that I don't think that worthy goal can be achieved by looking to those media as models rather than inspirations for good gaming.


This reminded me of an incident that happened back when I went to a tiny little college that was settled in the middle of a tiny little town of about five thousand people. While I was there, the local community tried to remove the book Being There by Jerzy Kosinski from the shelves of the school library. Amazingly, Kosinski came to town to defend himself, his book, and his understanding of freedom. I was privileged enough to be present when Kosinski made his defense, and his argument not only deeply moved me, but actually affected the way I understand the world.

He made the observation that fiction is the most democratic form of media. I can pick up any work of fiction anytime and anywhere I wish. I can read it at any pace I choose. I am the one who controls how I envision the world described in those pages. In contrast, newspapers determine what content I am to read. Non-fiction limits the pallet by which I can imagine what I am reading, because these are real people, in real places. Photography and painting determine exactly what it is that I am to see. Television and movies are the most autocratic of all. They determine virtually every aspect of the experience — when and where, what I see, what I hear, how I see and how I hear. Once I turn on the TV, push play, or sit down in the movie theater, I have given up control to the media. I attribute my utter refusal to see any movie on opening day weekend and a preference for watching movies and TV shows on the web or on DVD to this argument. By doing so, in some small way, I am taking back some of the control over the experience.

This argument is quite relevant to the world of RPGs and adds a layer of nuance to what James is trying to say. As James has so eloquently pointed out on his blog, RPGs used to list books to read in order to find inspiration. Now they list TV shows and movies. There is a direct correlation to the amount of freedom players have in the way these games are presented and played to these influences. Campaign settings are a unique form of media. They can act as literature or television in terms of their democracy vs. autocracy that Kosinski was speaking about. This relationship is determined entirely by how it is used. We, as gamers, can choose to use it as inspiration in order for us to freely create our own worlds, taking what we like and discarding what we don't. Or we can use them as canons to restrict not only what we ourselves do, but what anyone else can do with the material.

I am not at all surprised that old-school gaming, with its emphasis on creativity, house-rules, player freedom and sandbox campaigns is solidly rooted in literature. I am also not surprised that as TV and movies became increasingly influential on RPGs that campaign worlds became instruments of autocracy and that modern RPGs emphasize plot, story and adventure paths over creativity and player freedom.

I would be remiss if I did not reflect on how this reminds me of our own relationship with the world and sin. As beings made in the image and likeness of God, we are free beings. However, we exist in a fallen world overwhelmed by sin and death. When we ignore God and freely choose a world of sin, we concede control of ourselves to sin, in much the same way we do when we turn on a TV. It has the illusion of true freedom, but in reality we are slaves. However, when we take creation, and use it to bring it and us closer to God, we are taking control of both creation and ourselves. Our creative spirit is set free and we get to taste true freedom. Indeed, this is one the very reasons I write this blog and it is the model by which I play my games.

1 comment:

  1. I am not at all surprised that old-school gaming, with its emphasis on creativity, house-rules, player freedom and sandbox campaigns is solidly rooted in literature. I am also not surprised that as TV and movies became increasingly influential on RPGs that campaign worlds became instruments of autocracy and that modern RPGs emphasize plot, story and adventure paths over creativity and player freedom.

    Kudos on what seems to be an extraordinarily lucid and well-phrased insight.

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