Tuesday 10 June 2014

Cheever vs. Plot

The stories of John Cheever are said to epitomize late 20th Century middle-class life in New York and its suburbs. But he's got much more than his contemporaries John Updike or Philip Roth achieved in that department. There is a willingness to reach into magical realism, a sense of life's capriciousness, a tendency to play it as it lays. The influence of Cheever can be found, by Matt Weiner's own admission, in Mad Men. Cheever would have hated Dragonlance or Ravenloft. If Roald Dahl had written Tomb of Horrors, Cheever might be responsible for Caverns of Thracia, and Tom Wolfe, perhaps, Rahasia.

Let Metro-North be your only railroad.
John Cheever, interview, Paris Review, published 1976, set as free verse:

I don’t work with plots.
I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts.
Characters and events come simultaneously to me.
Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap.
It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction.
Of course, one doesn’t want to be boring . . . one needs an element of suspense.
But a good narrative is a rudimentary structure, rather like a kidney.

In an improvised game, apprehension and intuition come from the tentative advance of a concept - and then a Darwinian selection as it either becomes more elaborated or drops out of the game entirely - depending on the will of the players to pursue it and of the game master to play along - or on the will of the game master to develop it and of the players to play along.

Last time in Game of Iron I presented the players with a dragon. It attacked a place they were in -- but it wasn't a Hollywood second-act "base invasion," rather more of an illustration of the heating up of the conflict between powers that they were entering into. They chose to withdraw rather than fight it, chose to pursue their existing quest rather than go dragon hunting. The dragon had a lair in my book, from an old Dungeon magazine - had a whole plot attached, fitted into the power structure. That dragon may or may not show up again. 

Plot is what you look back on. I only started out running Tomb of the Iron God and somehow that iron statue spawned a whole conspiratorial prophetic mythology over the run of two and a half years. It spawned a gigantic iron statue in pieces and the smaller wearable pieces that control the big pieces and the revelation that this is only one possible way the coming Iron Age could turn out.

Plot is the kidney, not the heart or the brain. All you need is a number of powers, a number of places and maguffins and people that are key to that power, the revelation of the need to transport or unite or create or destroy or defend in order to shift or preserve the balance of power- and that is enough for play.

Friday 6 June 2014

God-Theologians of the Cyberweb

Rarely, except when RPG nerds indulge in system arguments, do we see the spectacle of the Gods themselves debating the theology of their secondary creations.

Theologians debate the nature of the afterlife. The self-styled Gods debate the nature of the Aftergame, for the mere mortal players who strut within their glass worlds. Who is saved and who is damned when the game session becomes mere memories? Is it the one who had facile, mindless fun? The one who gained Dark Insights from a touch with the abyss? The one who wrestled with an inconvenient system only to feel the character-building grace of the Rules-As-Written? Is salvation for the elect, or also for the mass-market - the 12 year old, the soccer mom? The philosophers' problem, the ultimate meaning of life, looms large inside the bottle city.

But never mind the immortal player-soul. The nature and construction of the world is also grounds for debate. These being gods, we are treated not to ignorant ideas about how the world is, but omniscient talk about how to make a world. Not "does," but "should," existence precede essence? That is,does my game say "I spend a Wealth Resource making a Power Move to open a Hierarchy Opportunity" and let the image of a sack of faceless coins thudding into the greasy lap of a functionary proceed from that? Or should the game build large concepts from a base of material grit?

Ontological debates among the gods ask not about the structure of matter but of action - is resolution by a unitary system or multiple ones? Is the monad a d6, a d20, a d10 or is there no monad at all? Should improbable but awesome events be facilitated? What are the relative contributions of fate (GM), chance (dice) and will (player)? Should heroes get a break?

It is the world-building and world-defining nature of these questions that makes geek discourse so impassioned, so theological. Almost by definition, to be a geek is to become immersed in a sub-world, whether by expanding to imagine a totally different universe of reality, or by shrinking the boundaries of obsession to cover a computer operating system. If the dialogue in roleplaying is particularly heated, pompous, intractable or obtuse, that is just the consequence of a theological argument conducted by the gods themselves.