Or, Why D&D RocksSo, my last post generated quite a bit of dialogue, all of which I found really interesting and it got me thinking. I don’t watch a lot of American-made TV shows and I have been to see a movie in a movie theater maybe three times in the last decade and barley remember the last time I either wasn’t disappointed or wanted to go back and see the movie I had just seen again. Part of it is that much of the entertainment business in the U.S. (and the English-speaking world) holds me in contempt for my religious views and that contempt is shoved in my face frequently enough that I don’t readily commit a lot of my entertainment dollar or time to their product.
However, I also think that the entire industry suffers from the very same problem that the show The Magicians does: at its core is a postmodern, post-Christian and post-religious world-view. As long as our story-tellers are dedicated to this view of life, the universe and everything then they are incapable of telling good stories.
Let me explain: as did the ancient Greeks, I categorize every story as either a comedy or a tragedy. In other words, the hero succeeds or the hero fails. Comedy or tragedy alone, however, do not make a good, compelling story because comedy and tragedy are simply about how the hero succeeds or fails, not why. The best heroes and villains are broken. Their journey towards success or failure depends upon why they are able to transcend that brokenness or why they cannot.
For example, one of the best movie trilogies to come out in the last decade or so, as far as I am concerned, is the Kung-fu Panda series. In each movie we are presented with a flawed hero (Po) who is a clumsy, nerdy, out-of-shape orphan who does not know who he is. The trilogy is his journey of overcoming his flaws, his preconceptions and his circumstance to become the Dragon Warrior. The why in all of this has to do with love, sacrifice, humility and the ability to understand that each of us does, in fact, have a role larger than ourselves.
The trilogy also presents us with three flawed villains who are the hero of their own story. Each of them has a reason for their villainy, a reason that is relatable and understandable. Should the audience find themselves in the villain’s shoes, they could easily make the same choices.
At the climax of each movie, Po tells each villain how to win. In each case, their own ego and burning desire for revenge prevent them from seeing the truth about who they are and the victory that is within reach.
At the heart of all of this is a world-view where the divine exists. Po overcomes his shortcomings because there is something greater in the world that he can tap into and be transformed by. The villains all fail because they do not have the humility to see the divine in themselves to be transformed. It is their very insistence on doing everything on their own without the divine that spells their doom.
In a world without the divine, Po cannot transcend his flaws. He is doomed to be a clumsy, nerdy, out-of-shape orphan that has no chance of defeating the villains. Without the transformative force of the divine, Po makes a completely unbelievable hero. If Po is to succeed in a world without the divine, he must simply be bigger, badder and better than the villains he faces. There is no transformation. There is no real why. The hero simply succeeds because that is what heroes do.
For an example of this, look no further than Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Rey has no flaws. She does not grow. She has no need to transform in order to overcome the challenges and villainy that are placed before her. Before anyone starts complaining that the Force is a type of divinity and she uses the Force in the movie, compare the hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker to Rey. Skywalker was a loser at the beginning of the movie who had to learn about the Force and how to trust in it and allow the Force to flow through him. When he tries to do things on his own, he fails. When he finally internalizes his trust in the Force, he succeeds. Rey never has to do any of that. No one teaches her anything. She just knows. The Force is reduced to being part of why she is bigger, badder and better than the villains she gets to overpower.
There are various ways that post-modern story tellers try to overcome this inherent flaw. They construct these massive mysteries as distractions (who are Rey’s parents? why did Luke run away? what happened to the republic and the empire? who are the First Order? etc.) or make use of cliffhangers or surprises (which character won’t survive this week/this movie?). I won’t deny that these devices can be entertaining; however, once the surprise wears off and the mystery becomes less mysterious there really is no meat or heart to the story.
The timeless stories we tell are timeless because they are transformative. They show us that we can be the hero of our story and that we can be transformed and overcome our own flaws. As a kid who was a loser and a nerd I can totally identify with Po and Luke. I can be like them. I can trust in the divine and through learning about myself and my place in the larger world I can be transformed into something beyond my own expectations and hopes. In contrast, I can’t identify with Rey at all, nor can I ever be like her. She’s a superwoman who can do no wrong. There is no mechanism by which I can be like her.
This is why I love RPGs, especially D&D in all its various iterations. By its very nature, D&D defies a postmodern, post-Christian and post-religious world-view. Not only is the divine assumed because of divine magic and clerics, but every character begins as a loser who must learn to cooperate with others using their own special skills and abilities in order to find out their place in the larger story of the world. The better they get at this, the more they are transformed. They get to go from being 1st level nobodies who are one goblin hit away from being worm food to being 9th level Lords who cleanse the Wilderness of monsters and now protect the land from a stronghold they built.
This is also why I think D&D became so popular and has survived so long. It taps into the transformative, timeless tales human beings have told since the beginning of time. It allows us to be that hero and to find out why we succeed or fail.