Thursday, 8 March 2018

RPG Books as Imagination Training

We are now in the Bronze Age of OSR blogs (the Golden Age being 2008-2009 and the Silver Age being around 2009-2012), and I think Joseph Manola's Against the Wicked City may be the best and most important blog started in this era. By which I mean he is consistently finding new and useful things to say at a point where most other blogs have grown jaundiced and tired.

A case in point is his most recent post, RPG Books as Fiction. Go and read it. It's long, but worth it.

Where I think Joseph is precisely on the money (the whole thing is on the money, but on this point it is especially so - if that isn't a tautology) is here:

"I suspect that what [most RPG books] primarily provide, which traditional adventure fiction does not, is a form of meta-fantasy: not a chance to imagine yourself as a fantasy hero, but a chance to imagine yourself as part of a group of RPG players who are, in turn, imagining themselves as fantasy heroes as they experience the material in the book. People read RPG rulebooks, and they imagine how much fun it would be to play a character with a certain set of abilities. They read monster books, and imagine how much fun it would be to encounter those monsters during an RPG session. They read setting books, and imagine how great it would be to participate in a campaign set in that world. They read adventure modules, and imagine how much fun those adventures would be to play in. Then they put them back on the shelf and do something else, instead."

This describes much of my teenage experience of reading RPG books to a 't'. Yes, my friends and I played a lot of games. But how much published material did we actually use for its intended purpose? I can remember a couple of sessions where we played some published Planescape adventures. But the vast bulk of my memories associated with RPG books was paging through them on long car journeys or while on holiday and just, well, imagining what it would be like to use them. "Wouldn't it be great to be in a session where we encountered a morkoth?" I would think as I browsed through the Monstrous Manual. "Wouldn't it be great to have a PC find the Hand of Vecna?" I would think as I read the section of the 2nd edition DMG on 'artifacts'. "Wouldn't it be great to run an all-druid campaign?" I would think as I flicked through the Complete Druid's Handbook. "I'd love to run a campaign set in the Philippines," I would think as I sat reading the Cyberpunk 2020 Pacific Rim Sourcebook. My experience of actual gaming was a pale shadow of the kind of things that my adolescent brain could come up with left to its own devices.

(Not incidentally, I had a similar relationship, thinking back, to Games Workshop books. My friends and I played a heck of a lot of Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, and Necromunda. But being impoverished 13 year olds, we could barely afford any models. We primarily resorted to using a huge mass of ancient lead figures bequeathed to one of us by an older brother or cousin, and we could only dream about the possibilities of actually being able to buy a Basilisk/Lehman Russ Battle Tank/Dark Angel Dreadnought/Orc Shaman Riding a Wyvern or whatever, while paging through 'Codex' books. With Games Workshop, though, the requirement to just sit around reading books and imagining was more or less a nakedly commercial phenomenon rather than anything else.)

It may seem that this makes buying and reading RPG books an extremely decadent and even perverse activity - like a kind of unexciting pornography in which you don't even get to imagine having sex with a beautiful woman but instead just imagine being a horrendous nerd. One view is that it's basically impossible to sink any lower in the hierarchy of cool than fantasizing about playing D&D; you're so tragic that you can't even find a few catpiss-stinking neckbeards to game with and have to simply wish that they existed.

That's one way of looking at it, but when I look back now I can't help but feel that I would have been wasting my time even more egregiously by, for example, playing video games or even reading bog-standard fantasy novels. It might be true that most RPG books aren't particularly well-written, and you couldn't class any of them as being 'literature' in any real sense. But their great virtue is their open-endedness. They don't pretend to be coherent narratives - except for the most railroady of published adventures. At their best, they are a kind of springboard for the imagination: 96 pages of ideas, some better than others, but all of them at least capable of being played around with and squeezed and squashed and stretched and turned upside-down and kicked about until they turn into something wonderful. I may never have got to play in a game in which a morkoth was involved, but I was able to imagine dozens of potential morkoth-scenarios.

In other words, that time spent just browsing RPG books and imagining never-to-be-realised possibilities was a kind of imagination boot-camp, imagination circuit-training, imagination bikram yoga. Since the imagination is a muscle, I think it came in more than handy. Still does, as a matter of fact: I don't think I'll ever run, say, The Veins of the Earth, A Red and Pleasant Land, Qelong etc. at the table, but the thing about the imagination is, there's never a bad time to tone it up a bit.

18 comments:

  1. That's exactly the relationship I have with most of Chaosium's Gloranthan stuff. Yes, I ran a lot of Runequest games as a kid, but they were more or less just generic fantasy with added broos and dragonewts. It didn't help that RQ 3 was explicitly and *exactly* that - and that's probably what we played the most.In fact, a Heroquest Gloranthan one-off I ran 18 months ago might have been my first session to actually have a Gloranthan flavour (tribes, cults, journeys to the Underworld, etc.).

    For the most part, though, the Gloranthan material was (is!) just a lens for envisaging the scenarios played out at the back of Plato's cave. And that's no bad thing.

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    1. I was the same with Changeling: The Dreaming and some of the other White Wolf books.

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    2. Their predecessor, Ars Magica, was another example for me. I read over the borrowed rulebook again and again, but never actually played it. (For some reason, I found the description of hirelings as "grogs" deeply annoying, though!)

      One thing about all of these settings, I think, and Tekumel too, is that engineering the requisite player buy-in is quite an effort. It's hard to run a Gloranthan game if everyone has medieval Europe in mind; and I recall an exasperated Call of Cthulhu GM having to explain to a fellow player why commando rolls were *not* appropriate for a 1920s investigator.

      That's why, I reckon, Dragon Warriors and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay were satisfying games for teenagers: it was easy to get players to understand what it was all about - easier, in fact, than with (A)D&D.

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  2. They are like certain works of Borges or Calvino: settings without narrative, except for that implied by the setting.

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    1. Definitely. Planescape may be the best example.

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  3. The mid of this post came off as a downer. Ouch.

    Nothing wrong with idling time away fantasizing about time well spent with friends.

    I don't think that, imagination-wise, there's such a world of difference between engaging an Rpg directly at the table or by meta effort. The mental pushing for visualization is much the same for both instances, though the actual playing is much more dynamic and fluid, it can also be jarring and disappointing in ways the idealized thing just glides over.

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    1. Didn't mean it to come across as a downer! I was just raising that view in order to disagree with it.

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  4. In addition to what you wrote in your blog post, I find it enjoyable to simply read about a great setting on its own terms. For example, I have spent countless hours reading M. A. R. Barker's Tekumel stuff, regardless of the fact that I have never once ran a game on Tekumel. It's like reading the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. It is a source of joy and wonder in its own right.

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  5. "...we could only dream about the possibilities of actually being able to buy a Basilisk/Lehman Russ Battle Tank/Dark Angel Dreadnought/Orc Shaman Riding a Wyvern or whatever..."

    We just used cardboard rectangles with 'LEMAN RUSS' written on them in felt-tip pen. Imagination training!

    Thanks for the kind words, though if Skerples can keep updating Coins and Scrolls with anything like his current energy then it's only a matter of time before his blog eclipses mine as King of the OSR Bronze Age.

    And I think you're right that reading RPG books can be very good for creativity, precisely because of their open-endedness. They stimulate the imagination in very different, and often more productive, ways than traditional works of fiction. Indeed, one of the qualities that truly great fictional works often possess is *completeness*: they address their subject so thoroughly and perfectly that there's not much room to respond with anything other than 'wow'. (Very few people will leave a good performance of 'King Lear' asking: 'But what happened next?') Whereas the deliberate raggedness and incompleteness of RPG books stimulates the reader to engage actively and imaginatively with the text, goading them to fill in the blanks themselves. As Blake would say, it 'rouses the faculties to act'.

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    1. Ooh, a William Blake quotation. Your crown is showing no sign of slipping just yet.

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  6. Ohh! Couldn't agree more! I love the overall style of various books I choose to buy; since my first young reading of The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, Hans Christian Andersen, CSLewis, Robinson Cruesoe, and Stevenson; I began creating living worlds in my own head. RPGs amplified this to the Nth!
    I really think most of us could write or simply run a set of Homebrew from our heads; the books are entirely secondary to the game, they are, in effect, just as you say, fuel for the muscle!
    I mentioned this just yesterday in response to a post fielding responses to Pathfinder's upcoming 2nd edition; books get updated to be more in line with the zeitgeist of the times, which requires realignment every ten years or sooner. Relatedly, source books, especially ones with cool tables, art, settings, maps, etc., are the best fuel because they are new. Artists have a link to the zeitgeist and tap into this energy, be they writers, drawers, or font setters... there's much more to a ruleset or supplement than the rules!
    Likewise, I wouldn't run a lot of weird (but I love to read it!).

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  7. Imagination training - there's a bunch of RPG product that definitely fits best in this category, rather than the actually-use category or the novel/story category. Little of it holds a candle to a book of fantasy art, though. Or even the non-fantasy but imaginary landscape art of a painter like Thomas Cole, one of my favourites.

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  8. I think one should wonder... your yoon-suin book was fantastic - one of best I've ever purchased, as far as rpg supplement goes. And it is wondrous to stimulate the imagination ... but how many people *ran* a yoon suin game? I have (still am!). A friend of mine used the yellow city as a city within a wider world... but that's all I am aware of... :/

    If it's too original, even if it's very usable, it may keep some people away from actually making it happen...

    Ancalagon

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    1. I don't know - I hope I made it gameable and usable enough?

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    2. Well it's definitely usable... but how many people are willing to do the work? How many are willing to actually game in a strange and foreign world?

      I believe that it's an outstanding product. But your post made myself wonder how it's being used...

      Ancalagon

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  9. I agree entirely. There is only so much time to actually play and so many "imaginary campaigns" that couldn't really be topped by actually running them. Better to let each pleasure be its own thing.

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