or: Taking RPG content seriously.
In which we pontificate on the discursive content of RPG texts, and the phenomenon of the New Romance. Originally created for Matthijs Holter’s fanzine Karass.
Pan is dead
No longer are they fighting by our side,
the noble gods, who in man’s morning rose
from his desire to live free, fair and wise.
They walk no more with us: long since they waned,
when sin’s dark doctrine fell on weary men,
with coward thoughts of terror and remorse,
and Death first entered an enfeebled world.
Now every hour he lies in wait for us,
and mocks us, like the serpent’s baleful eye
which watches scornful o’er its destined prey.
The whole creation travaileth in pain,
and through the woods at evening runs a sigh:
The mighty Pan is dead…
But still He lingers here, that mystic, pale,
forlorn, deserted form from Galilee;
and where his hand is stretched, there fades away
the smile of confidence – resistance dies,
and man, abashed and fearful, slinks away
to clammy shadows, where no sun dares shine.
-Nils Collett Vogt (1864 -1937) (Transl. G.M. Gathorne-Hardy)
When, for various reasons, I happened to read this poem, I found that it reminded me a lot of the tone in the World of Darkness games. That world runs on the same stuff from the romantics which we can find in this riff on the legend of Pan’s death. It also brought me to think about Umberto Eco’s offhand criticism on the Lord of the Rings, made on the way to a theory of why so many western stories carry symbolic baggage from the middle ages. This made me suggest that almost all popular RPG’s I can think of are written in a neoromantic tradition. The nostalgia for the past, old legends, ruins and vanished realms is the same. Come to think of it, this applies to large sections of the sci-fi and fantasy genres as well.
At this point, our dear fellow editor Matthijs insists that at least Sci-Fi games are optimistic – but even a game like Traveller employs tropes like the Empire, the vanished Precursors and the romantic hero, in the guise of the dashing space rogue. The Adam and Eve of the fantastic genres, Tolkien and Howard, works almost exclusively with romantic themes.
It’s a historian’s standard exercise to play the «six degrees of separation» game with fascism at the 0-point. Eco the Semiologist goes as far as to condemn aspects of Tolkien’s authorship because it employs the emotional punch of romance signs and symbols to portray the just war and the triumph of will and power over intellect as an ideal for good. Though the description might be an uncomfortable fit here and there, outright condemnation is perhaps going a bit too far. Even so, it appears that the worlds which almost all RPG’s take place in employ romantic symbols and aesthetics in some way or another. Emotions come before thought; things old, rare and mystical are better than things new, common and familiar; we miss the Great Pan, The Hidden People, Mighty Thor, the Mythic Age, Atlantis, the Glory of Rome, Midgard’s past ages, the First Reich, and all the other labels on which a nostalgia is focused – a nostalgia which is more happy as nostalgia than as its realization. We’d rather long for the age when Pan walked with us, than actually do it.
Images of fantastic, ultimately romantic worlds are generally exempt from the critical examination to which non-fantastic; non-nostalgic, non-romantic fictions are subjected. Are they not taken seriously, are they «just for fun», or are we avoiding the exercise because some of the elements – discourses, signs, symbols – employed in a romantic story has uncomfortable implications if interpreted as a normative statement rather than an explorative one? What ideals are we conveying to each other if we read our fantastic worlds as lectures on reality, like Moores Utopia, rather than the playful “what if’s” of most RPG worlds?
If we suppose that it is so – virtually all the big, popular RPGs belong in some kind of globalized neo-neoromantic tradition, there must be implications, consequences for how we design, organize and perform role playing games, new possibilities opening. At least, the perspective could provide me with a starting point for figuring out what themes a game can offer me to work with at the table. Maybe we can dig out something by doing a concrete analysis.
So let’s look at Barne, Flack and Mason’s Dark Heresy. It’s is the most recent addition to traditional RPGs about dark gritty cool people with katanas and oversized armour. But this time, they have chainsaw swords as well. I like chainsaw swords. I’ve liked dark gritty cool people with katanas, ever since I laid my eyes on the illustrations in the first edition of Vampire: the Masquerade. I’m not sure where I stand on american footballer-styled oversized armour, but on the whole, this seems promising.
In Dark Heresy, you’re portraying low-level minions in the secret police of the Emperor, that lovable Sacred Undead Space Nazi Pope we all learned to fear and loathe in the Warhammer 40 000 miniature game. He sits on the cybernetic throne of Terra, his withered form sustained in a grotesque half-life by the daily sacrifice of the very souls of millions of psychic humans, harvested by the Inquisition’s Black Ships and delivered to the Emperor from the entire galaxy. It’s not just the life of the Emperor who depends on this megascale holocaust, constantly sustained and perpetrated over thousands of years, but the existence of humanity as a whole, a humanity which is trapped in a neo-gothic dark age.
So far, so good. But since the mechanics more or less tell us we’ll be shot dead if we try to use our chainsaw swords, I’m stumped as to why they bothered to stick those in there. Which kind of brings me to one of my points. It was billed as the Warhammer 40 000 RPG, which it isn’t. There is stuff from Warhammer 40 000, and from Warhammer Fantasy here, from D20,Shadowrun, Paranoia, Call of Chtulhu, World of Darkness as well as occasional bits and pieces which can only have been drawn from the still-in-the-mold rapidly developing Indie tradition.
So what does the actual content of the Warhammer 40 000 setting give a GM to work with? Let us count (some of) the ways.
Way the first: There are two layers, one global and one personal in scale, of the faustian deal. The universe is vast and hostile to a degree unimagined by the majority of human beings. Their continued exististence is bought by a grotesque sacrifice and eternal war perpetrated by the empire of man. The characters buy their access to this vast universe by cooperating with the empire, which for reasons of its own exalts them from the faceless teeming billions of the galaxy.
Way the second: Then there’s the romantic mythology of progress and degeneration. We get a vision of an immense high-tech civilization in a state of decay analogous to the decay of the classical world, and a portrayal of the European Dark Age transplanted into space, bordering on the Pythonesque in the intensity of its brutality, intolerance and ignorance.
Way the third: Tagging along with and enabling the Faustian deal, there’s the image of the desperate struggle for survival against overwhelming odds, accentuated by the Lovecraftian cosmic horror of «intelligences vast and ancient» taken another step, making humanity itself a player on the scene where the ancient and monstrous powers slug it out.
Here we have the seeds of an unusually straightforward order of discourse – three different but related dictionaries which the writers draw terms and concepts from in order to talk about this setting. Discourses are analytical tools – not actually present in the text, but useful for figuring out where it draws its symbols, themes and tropes from. That means we can zoom in and out, up and down our resolution. Each of these three discourses has its own internal order of discourse, and can be read as parts of a greater order, like one of those treelike educational displays describing the evolution of species.
So what is this greater order, the common ancestor of the three discources we have looked at? Let’s call it the “new romance”.
It’s not hard to spot what this setting draws its punch from – there’s war, terrible sacrifice, and a faceless, eternal and numberless enemy. There’s a tissue-thin layer between the themes of this setting and the stories which convince us of the unavoidable necessity of the world wars.
That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – the setting is originally designed to create a waterproof reason for our miniatures to be shooting at each other. There aren’t many other discursive strategies available today which can do that apart from appeal to the mythology of the Good War, the great war to end all wars. A combination of strategies drawn from the romantic and the nationalist discourses are the only tools on the shelf that will do the job. And they work. When we take on the ironic perspective of the WH40K world, the emperor is clearly in the right. However, read in the stark light of reality, the entire empire of man appears to be an utterly horrific totalitarian state run by genocidal fundamentalist maniacs.
So why hasn’t any of this been put to some use in the actual game text? In about 400 pages of lovingly rendered guns and pictures of angry-looking people, the notion that there might be some good material to build on in the characters’ collaboration with this horrific, dying, Faustian behemoth of an empire doesn’t appear to have been thought worth much of a mention. Don’t get me wrong – the potential is there, in between the lines, but remains that – a half-worded or unspoken incidental consequence of the game’s real action. The ability lists include the generic options now included in most commercial games, describing a basic level of heroic competence, as well as a wealth of setting-specific abilities. The latter should provide us with a fairly good idea of what kind of unique activities the designers expect the characters to engage in. And it’s plainly Call of Chtulhu, but In Space, with Ninja Chicks and Wacky Wizards.
I guess I should play nice, expect a commercial game to stick to the true and tested basics and be happy with what they’ve given me. But I’m not feeling nice today. I want to be able to at least expect of an RPG what would be expected of any other competently produced mass entertainment product, and this isn’t it. And more, I tend to expect a lot more than all that of a modern role playing game. I want my RPG’s to aim for something beyond the Land of the Wild Cheeto-flavoured Spandex Assassin Women. And it’s not just my unrealistic hopes for the setting talking here – there are some things inherent in the themes of this setting which demand an entirely different method of play than a quick investigation tree with a firefight at the end.
It’s not that the setting, as we’re presented with it, doesn’t have potential. But it’s a tiny slice of the complete Warhammer 40 000 setting, a slice which appears to have been carefully extracted to support a method of play which will give maximum marketability and a minimum of innovation. The result is RPG design cowardly to a degree that can only be described as hideous.
Of course, it’s not wrong to design something we think people would like to read and play. But if a theatre director or a script writer found himself in a situation where he had to somehow make 10 000 years of industrial mass murder of millions of innocent people a part of his story, he would not get away with leaving it as an ornament painted in the corner of the scenery, no matter how squeamish he felt about the subject. He’d be better off finding another discourse to feed his story.
And yes, I know – the setting is pure pubescent fantasy kitsch; every aspect of it is inflated to the point of grotesque ridiculous testosterone-throbbing fun. Normally, choosing that approach would shield just about anything from a serious criticism. But then you’ve got this Inquisition angle and method of play, pasted onto the setting rather than emerging naturally from it, completely sidestepping what could, to take just one possibility, have turned this into an entertaining poke at authoritarianism in the vein of the Paranoia games. The outlook for fielding this game is frighteningly linear, a method and engine crudely riveted together like an Ork Madboy’s shambling, farting, lethal creation, using old generic spare parts scrounged seemingly at random from better games. A better GM than me might make a great evening out of this, but I believe both I myself and many others do need at least a hint of support from the designer’s side to pull this game off.
The lazy design aside, the game is a pretty good example of an RPG attempting to bring the customary neoromantic sensibility to bear, and failing. Where it fails is in taking its subject matter, the symbols, themes and dictionaries it draws on seriously to the high degree only a tongue-in-cheek approach demands. Read as a game of lighthearted trigger happy fun, it risks becoming little more than a tasteless, superficial joke. Read as a game with serious themes, it fails to engage and struggle with the themes it has selected.
The demands of content on designers, organizers and performers
While I was working on this text, Martin Bull Gudmundsen, one half of the Itras By writer duo, noted that China Miéville belongs in the ranks of the Tolkien critics. While Eco, who is simply taking a random swipe at the grand old man in passing, runs the risk of being mowed down by Godwin’s law, Miéville takes a similar approach to my own, though the good marxist does of course demand that a text should challenge, not provide Tolkienesque escape and comfort, rather than invoke fascism or mirror my own demands for some kind of attitude – any attitude – to the realworld source material. Maybe these platforms for critique amount to the same, maybe not.
Both Tolkien, the World of Darkness and Dark Heresy attempts to activate the most extreme and deeply-rooted material available to them, but fails to use them for anything beyond emotional pathos, and barely that. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that – I love the experiences they offer. But do they challenge? Are the creators aware of whose shoulders they are perching on, and if they are, does this knowledge inspire any sense of obligation or responsibility toward the ideas they are appropriating? In the case of Dark Heresy, I can’t see any trace of such an awareness, and the work suffers for it. Tolkien explicitly denied having one. The aesthetic essays I can remember from World of Darkness material is just that – treating every discourse they recruited as aesthetic and a source of catharsis, nothing more. Though to be fair, the variation here is great – from the calls of “remember” and “never again” in the Wraith sourcebook Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoa to the ridiculously thoughtless racism of the infamous Gypsies.
Gypsies in particular illustrates the many pitfalls of an unreflective writing process, where the material the writers draw on is not used to its full potential, not reflected upon, and not taken seriously, all presumably excused by the harmlessness of escapism. But the multitudes of discourses drawn on by the new romance all carry implications, millennia of baggage which will reach the reader whether the writer is aware of it or not. We supposed that most or all RPG texts can be placed within this new romance, as they make use of discourses which are saturated by it. A look at some samples seems to bear the thought out. What might this imply?
Design; One important conclusion must be that it’s not enough to locate our story in an imaginary la-la-land to be free of the weight of history. No matter how many levels of unreality we pile on, we are still writing in a language containing an archaeology, heavy with hidden meaning. Among the consequences of this realization must be a demand for RPG writers to display more than the disclaimer-riddled minimum of awareness of their games’ place in or relation to the real world, and perhaps a bit of artistic ambition and integrity. If nothing else then because the alternative will eventually lead to another Gypsies, and there are certain people I do not relish the thought of having to explain such a specimen of the art to.
Organization; The discourses of the new romance are a particular set of mythologies, ways of thinking and justifying actions, of telling stories and talking about the world. It takes more than the designer or GM’s invocation of “once upon a time” to make the step from a normative text, or game, where we thoughtlessly or ironically repeat old stupidities to each other, to explorative, where we experience new things. When I’m planning my game, I want to try to be aware of what I’m bringing up on a level other than the aesthetic. I want coolness, but coolness is sterile, it doesn’t get you emotional impact, it doesn’t provoke thought. Exploring the structure of the discourses of the new romance should help us squeeze that last bit of juice out of the plot.
Performance; A roleplaying game in play is a fantastically complex instance of discourse, where the statements made do not just draw on and establish a discursive space – a set of linguistic conditions which all subsequent statements rely on to build meaning – but also escapes and re-establishes the fixed reality – a condition which normal discourse must always relate to – by making it part of the discursive space and thus subject to the development of the discourse. By being conscious of what discourses we draw on as we shape the uniquely flexible discursive space of a game, we can consider and talk about things in ways which would otherwise be impossible, and which no other mode of communication can achieve.
I think well-written roleplaying content needs – not to conform to any opinion of mine on its approach to the cultural material it recruits and remixes – but to at least have an approach – display some kind of awareness of what kind of ghosts it’s stirring up. It’s the lack of such an awareness that Eco and other bothersome Godwinators keep warning us about. The themes around which troublesome ideas and organizations tend to accumulate and multiply are not problems in themselves. It’s a lack of awareness of what the sources, uses and attractions of these themes are which can turn a work which could have been excellent into something banal, repellent, neutered or even dangerous.
That said, the potential in this genre and its approach to telling stories is great, and far from exhausted. Though I wish RPG writers would sometimes choose to look elsewhere for their Whoas and Oomphs, I enjoy my romantic fantasies as much as anyone else. The Great God is out there. It just takes more than happy thoughts and good intentions to find him and do him justice in speech or writing. So let’s end this rambling rant with the lyrics Maleficum from the Rollespill.no forums brought into the discussion, and resurrect Pan.
I stood upon the balcony with my brand new bride
The clink of bells came drifting down the mountainside
When in our sight something moved
– lightning eyed and cloven hooved –
The great God pan is alive!
He moves amid the modern world in disguise
It’s possible to look into his immortal eyes
He’s like a man you’d meet anyplace
Until you recognise that ancient face
The great God pan is alive!
At sea on a ship in a thunder storm
On the very night that christ was born
A sailor heard from overhead
A mighty voice cry «pan is dead!»
So follow christ as best you can
Pan is dead! long live pan!
From the olden days and up through all the years
From arcadia to the stone fields of inisheer
Some say the gods are just a myth
But guess who I’ve been dancing with
The great God pan is alive!