Saturday, August 4, 2018

Dangerous Ideas in Roleplaying Games

This is not about murdering orc children, but it could be. Instead I want to take a look at the dangerous ideas that are out there and see what worth there is in having them in a game. Not sure I'll get too specific, not sure this is going to be complete, but I'm very sure that role playing games are the one medium in which we are safe to experiment with ideas we wouldn't want to encounter unprepared in the wild ... and those definitely exist.

To Know Is To Know

The first foray in this argument could go several directions, but we'll go with the one formulated in the intro: to give people the opportunity to reflect ideas properly in a "simulation" is the best way to give them a head start when confronted with it or to give them an understanding what they had already experienced (even "just" through close friends or family).

To some extent this is what stories already do: they allow us to experience difficult situations (drama) quasi second hand, offering us to not only understand, but to emphasize. Fear, laughter, hate, sorrow, lust ... you name it, you can experience it. Get a glimpse, if you will.
Emotions and how they connect ... sometimes I love the internet :) [source]
You might say now 'But that's just entertainment!' (which I've seen happening in an argument once) and I'd hold against you, that the main reason for stories being "entertaining" is the fact that we are wired to engage with patterns and make stories about them. It's the reason why I can sit down in my apartment in front of a strange contraption, typing strange symbols you can decipher into something (hopefully) carrying meaning. It's the core engine that makes us hairless monkeys as inventive as we are.

So, stories are important. They give us an understanding of the world surrounding us. The appeal is that "knowing" will always give you an advantage. This isn't even about something like "scientific truth" necessarily, as a metaphorical truth will serve you just fine as long as its base assumption leads the the right behavior when needed. Which means (not exclusively, but mainly) that abstract and strange ideas or concepts have a place in this realm.

That's what "monsters" are, for example: manifestations of truths in an abstract and strange way, that can function as a warning (which is true in mythology, not necessarily in D&D). Fairy tales will work that way and are a good example how abstract concepts can get and still work. To a degree, even, where the reader isn't even fully aware of the effect or the consequences of a story (a lessons well learned and abused in advertisement, btw).

To know is to know, that's the big lesson here. You have an opinion? Challenge it with a counter-argument by any means. Explore the possibilities of ideas by talking with others (if opportune), by reading or writing (works for me a great deal), by watching movies or tv series or, well, by playing games (of the digital or analogue variety).

Always a catch ...

As I said, we do this naturally, unconsciously even. However, we are also creatures of habit (which is nothing else but using behavioral patterns we learned and got accustomed to) and, connected but far more influential, we like to keep it simple. Simplification is just as important as the abstract and the strange, even go hand in hand. And as long as it works, there is no problem with that what so ever.

When it's not working, though, is where it gets problematic. Simplifications will always leave room for interpretation. Done wrong, different interpretations will lead to conflict and misunderstanding. It's something we can see in politics (or the understanding thereof) almost every day. In other words, every low resolution story needs to include at least pointers to what the high resolution might look like.
Good old Boromir Memes ... [source]
 "Do good" is , maybe, a good example for something like this (most idioms and proverbs work that way, I guess) because what it means is not obvious by any stretch of the imagination. However you interpret it, though, will at least be beneficial to someone and it is only the degree how many people would consider something someone did as "good" that'll determine how effective this simplification is implemented. It's also something you can find out. It comes with "pointers".

Look at the paladin, if you need a role playing example.

In a way, simplifications only work beneficial if they are a short hand for some sort of reasonable and accessible truth. You can always find out by challenging them, but there is always the danger of just trusting that they'll lead to some sort of truth.

In a best case scenario, someone using those simplifications (either with ulterior motive or, far more often, unreflected) will be challenged to look closer (going to a higher resolution, so to say). But that might go either way and the higher the stakes, the higher the potential for conflict.

Add to that the fact that we are all individuals, not only with very different approaches and ideas about life, but also with very different potential outcomes. It's not only that you can't convince everyone of your opinion (for lack of skill and opportunity), you just won't. People are different, and that means in consequence that different variants of "truths" will apply.

Easy example: what's true for someone loving nuts in everything, is very much different for someone highly allergic to nuts.

Dangerous Ideas in Roleplaying Games?

The name should give it away, one would think, but it bears repeating every now and then: those games are designed to play roles. Shocking, isn't it? The invention of character classes (simplifications, if you will) might actually sidetrack what that can mean.

At least that's what I realized just now. If you ask someone during character generation what he wants to play, it's always some sort of simplification we look for. What can I play, what's worth doing in this game? Even games featuring point-buy-systems will have discussions in that direction to some extent (being able to do EVERYTHING isn't a good idea either, as every game designer worth anything will tell you).

The answer to this question is actually the gateway to exploring dangerous ideas. It's not about a character a player is going for, it's about what potential for conflict and drama that choice has in the setting that is going to be played.

Here is the thing: ideas will always lie dormant (like a virus!) or, say, conserved in the surroundings they are created in. To activate them, you have to bring them into a context where the implications of an idea can be explored. This resonates well with everything described above, but the merit I see in doing this activation in a setting, is that the exploration not only happens in a fictional realm (which is true for all mediums, of course) but is also collaborative.

Each participant in a role playing game experiences stories through fiction that way and there is an opportunity to explore challenging ideas as well.

Here is a saying Carl Jung is famous for (not only for that, of course):
 "People don't have ideas, ideas have people."
Not Carl Jung ... you get it [source]
It really brings home lots of points I try to make above. It also might help highlighting the idea (sic!) why roleplaying is a "safe" way to explore ideas and concepts when doing said exploration through the lens of a fictional character (players) interacting with a fictional setting (gamemaster). There is an abstract distance between yourself and a your character (or setting), allowing you to become an observer and interpreter of the part you play.

If that ends up manifesting some sort of insight you didn't have before, it's a sign that you discovered a truth you weren't aware of. And if that's not worth playing for, I don't know what is.

How far people are willing to go with this, is entirely up to them. I'm just talking about the potential here. However, as far as I'm concerned, as long as all involved keep that abstract distance between themselves and their character (or setting), there is NO LIMIT to what you can do.

It brings some responsibility and maybe even requires some maturity to make it work, but that isn't even a problem, as you can scale this quite easily and "potential" also means potential for growth ... steady wins the race, and all that.

I might need to stress at this point that we (of course) play for the fun of it, and when you think playing it as vanilla and safe as you can get is the best way to go, more power to you. However, my definition of fun varies from that quite a bit and while I'm definitely not telling other people how they have to play their games ("can" is better in that context), I'd definitely see it as a sign of competency if a group is able to pull something like that of (even if they don't do it).

In other words: if you want a metric what a good DM or player makes, you could do worse than starting with how insightful their gaming is.

Dangerous Ideas need to offer insights

This is where it gets difficult, as there is a wide range of possibilities what that could entail. Playing a SS-Officer in occupied France might be an idea like that, or playing a serial killer (Vampire: the Masquerade, basically, right?). As a rule of thumb I'd say, the closer to home an idea hits, the more dangerous it can be.

Inglorious Basterds, of course [source]
If you are anything like me, you'll sit there now, thinking that there are, indeed, limits to this. You shouldn't role play whatever is considered taboo, for instance. However, given the right context and communicating it properly goes a long way. Playing a historical game can do this, for instance.

The Romans had slaves. Actually, they build a society on their shoulders. They also owned boys for sexual pleasure and married children as young as 10 ... Playing in a setting like that allows you to tackle some dangerous ideas where the abstract distance is somewhat greater because you add history as a layer.

It'll also need tact. Sure, you can play Spartacus and project your contemporary set of values to fictionally avenge whatever you take offense in. However, as far as insights go, it's better to experience something like the Roman society in day to day life, imo ... and that's where tact comes in. You have to keep the distance and to a degree rationalize the experience to allow reflection.

Have a Merchant become a good friend of the players. Someone they would protect, maybe. Then have him abuse a slave in public or marry a 12 year old and show how society reacted positive to it to a degree that the characters acting up against it would get them into trouble, actually. Let them explore the ramifications. Stuff like that.

The value of realizing how different cultures and people can be and why, is very much worth the attempt. However, it implies the requirement to do so without ill intent or malevolence. I really think that the main problem people have with bringing dangerous ideas to the table, is how it could be abused. So if you are sitting there right now, thinking how all that could go wrong, all of the examples you can come up with will be cases that go against this very basic requirement.

There are no orc babies ...

I think I understand now why the ideas of "killing orc babies" gets dismissed by some and is offensive to others. It illustrates how the abstract distance can vary from individual to individual. I don't say this to invalidate either claim. Actually, if anything, it validates both sides.

In that sense it also shows another quite obvious aspect of all of this: different people have different levels of maturity and experience. Stories that are engaging for some (within the limitations discussed above), might have others somewhere between bored or even offended!

So maybe the first thing we can learn by playing role playing games like this, is to not only accept that others are in different places about different topics (which already is very important), but also that that is totally alright. The important thing is that we find ways to talk about those things and find a consensus about them. Role playing is one of those ways.

There is no better message to end this post, I think, so I'll leave it be. What I'm interested to hear is if people did something like this already and how it worked out. Share your experiences, if you are so inclined. I'd love to read them!

Zen Baboon! [source]