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Saturday 22 February 2014

On Making Worlds: Role-playing games and morality

[apologies for the WALL OF TEXT, but I just need to get this down...]

I greatly appreciate and admire the 'a basket of leaves' project that my very dear friend was working on. It inspired a great deal of imaginative thoughts about fantasy worlds, but conversations with him often did. Being an all-round fantasy geek I had thoughts about transposing the world that he was building to a role-playing game setting (henceforth RPG). Indeed, this was one of the last things we discussed before his death.

However, his world is not one that would easily fit into an already existing game system. This is because, to take an example, the Dungeons &Dragons world is one of Tolkienesque 'high fantasy' with all its appropriate moral black and whites and easy cultural stereotypes. As I read more about his world, it became clear that the simplicity of a D&D-type world would never work with so rich a creation as he was designing. Sadly, it is not a finished world and there are countless questions about the various places and cultures that I can never now ask. Although I could (indeed, anyone could) take up the mantle and attempt to answer these questions myself and that the unfinished quality of his work therefore gives me space to insert more common RPG tropes; magic, monstrous races, good/evil dichotomy, etc. However, this alteration would unsettle too much about his world, such as has already been described. So, if I were to 'complete' his world then I should play on his terms.

This means that an appropriate game system does not exist, which is appropriate to the world-view being presented in 'a basket of leaves'. Indeed, although it would be ripe to be described in the terms of a novel or other such creation, the act of turning it into an interactive game requires changing how we think, as gamers, about RPGs. Too long have we allowed ourselves to be led by simple moral distinctions and outdated anthropologies (ones that are too Euro-centric and colonial, f.e.). The world being described in 'a basket of leaves' is one guided by its creator's love of; Ursula LeGuin, Jean Auel, Thor Heyerdahl (plus many others that I can't recall off the top of my head), and more importantly, his compassionate understanding of different peoples and of man's relation to nature.

To be concise, it is a world that mirrors his fondest hopes as well as his concerns for our willingness towards environmental and self-destruction (represented by the industrial dwarves and domineering human kingdoms). So, were I to translate his creation into an RPG it would require an entirely new game system. Indeed, due to copyright one would have to either use a game that was released with the Open Game License (OGL) or create an new system of game mechanics also. Surely the idea of an Ursula Le Guin type approach to an RPG would be one that could work, there have been several popular/successful (are these the same? How does one measure this?) RPGs that operated without an alignment structure at the game's core (such as White Wolf - World of Darkness games) or else with a more “muddied” system of alignment and of cultural stereotypes (such as Eberron, a D&D setting, that encourages more movement in the definition of characters while still retaining the meaning of good and evil).

Still, the basis of all of these games is in violent conflict, with the combat system guiding most of the player's actions. True, it is possibly to play some games more diplomatically than others (Vampire the Masquerade for example, thrived on the political dealings between the various vampire clans and the conspiracies each engaged in) but these are rarities. What about a game that deals with the description of craft and culture, with it's game system based in exploration and discovery, that is primarily about a sort of respectful interaction? Well, I suppose then you've got an RPG based on the principles of archaeology, anthropology, and philosophy and you're probably dealing with a pretty niche market, i.e. me and my friend. However, I believe, it's still a project worth doing, but perhaps not doing right now. Certainly it's not worth doing if the thought is to make any money (god forbid!).

It seems to me that RPGs are quite specifically North American (do I mean to include Canada here too? Not sure), the best known games all originate from there and I can't help wondering if we aren't seeing something of the cultural personality reflected in the Euro-centric good versus evil morality that plays itself out in game after game. Now, don't for a minute suspect that I'm stating this as fact or that ALL American gamers have inclinations in this direction (after all White Wolf is an American company too and classics like Traveller from GDW, but then neither of these are fantasy game systems). I'm just pointing out what might be complete coincidence based on other, totally arbitrary, factors. Although I cannot speak for the rest of Europe, tabletop war gaming has long been the preferred 'fantasy hobby' of the UK (until computer games become as prevalent as they now are). Games Workshop is probably the largest British producer of fantasy and sci-fi themed games and they mostly produce miniatures for their own games (as well as being the clear division from hobbyists to the business market).

Anyway this is only a sidetrack thought and probably one that will get me into trouble, because apart from the throw-away observation, there's not much else that can be elaborated upon. Still, I find it interesting to compare the (what strikes me as decidedly odd) American attitude to European medieval history (the rose-tinted romanticising of) and its potential cultural influence on the morality of gamers (and game designers).

This game morality has always been more problematic is fantasy-themed games mainly due to the historical factor. What causes the biggest problem is the romanticising of the pseudo-medieval setting, thus making it seemingly impossible to complain about the inherent racism and sexism. With “It's only a game!” being the ultimate get-out in this situation for the ardent supporter of good ole times feudalism. What makes fantasy and sci-fi great is not just the imagination but the relation to our present condition. The best stories are thought experiments in the most expansive of descriptions, dealing with universal what if scenarios and playing out current problems and cultural biases to their 'logical' conclusions. I realise that perhaps sci-fi has better claim to this territory, but I see fantasy fiction as able recreate ancient cultures with magic as the short-cut that technology often represents (especially “space opera” that isn't too fussed about scientific accuracy).

For all that, I'm still left with a passed-on D&D “Cyclopedia” and a desire to run an old skool game. So, what to do? I make a setting after these things that I wish for in an RPG and thank my friend for his inspiration.

& that's what I'll now do. Starting on another blog-space (as this project seems to outstrip the conditions of ARTiculation here) I'll work on detailing the world of my own creation, that is, a new D&D setting with some less standard fantasy cultures and a less 'heroic' theme. It will serve partly as a resource for any of the future players of the game and perhaps as an inspiration for other role-playing gamers out there, much like the 'a basket of leaves' project did for me. Eventually, I'd like to introduce my own game mechanics and remove some of the standard D&D elements I find objectionable, but at this early stage (and still wanting to play the old basic D&D system once more) it makes sense to hybridise the older game into my new setting.

What I want to create is a world that is a cross between Le Guin and Lovecraft (perhaps it is just the 'Gothic' I want to take from Lovecraft, the huge maddening monstrous unknowable), and that has some cultural complexity; believable cultures trying to develop themselves amidst the chaos of a 'darker' themed fantasy world (i.e. no races that are 'just evil' like orcs and so forth – the standard monster fodder). With the Elder Gods of Lovecraft being the basis for the power and corruption that seeps across all aspects of the world's inhabitants, f.e. Magick is an addictive-destructive-substance that can be abused (I suppose power=corruption is pretty straightforward here). A game were the characters begin with little world knowledge and have to explore and discover the world about them as their game/quest grows. One that still has the elements of standard D&D adventure but that has been infused with a more complex understanding of how different peoples might interact, but is still an adventure and deals with the fantastic. Ultimately, a fantasy game and world that mirrors my own world-view and desire for a more 'alien' non-European basis for a game. I want something that 'feels real to me,' which after all is the aesthetic criterion most of us operate under when deciding about fictional creations.