Friday, September 4, 2015

Everyday Phenomenology: Tabletop Role Playing

For the next post in my series on phenomenology, I want to analyze what it's like to play tabletop role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.

For anybody who isn't familiar with games like "D&D," I'll explain what goes in a typical play session. A group of players sit around a table where each member of the group has a set of dice like the ones pictured above, and they all try to tell a story together using those dice. Someone called the GM or "Game Master" (DM or Dungeon Master in Dungeons and Dragons) helps the game work by coming up with a setting, a story, and characters. If you've heard of video games like The Elder Scrolls series--where a person "levels up" a character after getting experience points--know that the ideas behind that kind of gameplay came directly from D&D and other tabletop RPGs. All video game RPGs owe them a debt.

If you're interested in some of my role-playing exploits, in the sidebar to the right there's a link to one of my other blogs, where I try to record the RPG campaigns I've been a part of. In the most recent one, I'm the GM!

The dice as Necessity

I'll begin my analysis by pointing out that tabletop role playing is only fun because there are dice. Without the chance and risk of failure they give, things would fall apart in one of two ways: first, it could put pressure on the GM to decide who succeeds or fails, and second, it could make everything too safe and easy. In the first case, hostility could easily break out between the players and the GM because they think she's either playing favorites or being too cruel. In the second, the story is way too bland; my character succeeds at everything he does, leaving the players with something not much better than a half-rate improv game.

The dice avoid both these possible issues by bringing risk and honesty to the game. But I'd say that "risk" and "honesty" are actually two sides of the same coin (or die?) and suggest that they're both aspects of something I'll call "Necessity." The word "Necessity" comes from a combination of the Latin words "ne- " (as in "not") and "cedere," which means "to yield." Essentially, what is necessary doesn't yield to my whims or ambitions, because "it is what it is." The Greek word for Necessity is ananke, also the name for its personification as a goddess, and has a few other nuances of meaning. For instance, Plato writes in his Timaeus that Nous, a personification of reason or mind, co-created the universe with Ananke:
This ordered world is of mixed birth: it is the offspring of a union between Necessity [Ananke] and Intellect [Nous]. Intellect prevailed over Necessity by persuading it to direct most of the things that come to be toward what is best, and the result of this subjugation of Necessity to wise persuasion was the initial formation of the universe.

From this point of view, everything in the universe is a "mix" between Intellect, Necessity, and the many ways they appear in tandem: order and chaos, mind and matter, meaning and absurdity, etc. The first one is what's under our control, what we can influence by our thoughts and deliberate actions; the second one is what escapes our control, what happens despite our intentions and best-laid plans. What's interesting is that this dichotomy between Intellect and Necessity essentially reintroduces the close relationship between player and dice in RPGs. Like life's Necessity, the dice lend a lack of control to the game by giving obstacles and challenges the players didn't choose. And like Intellect (at least the way Plato thinks of it), my will as a player lets me decide what actions or skill rolls I want to try, even if Necessity's dice don't let me succeed at it.

There's a further parallel in Plato's famous "Myth of Er," a story about an ancient soldier's near-death experience. Near the end of the tale, he writes about Er's experience watching departed souls get to "pick" which life they would live next in their cycle of reincarnation. Each of these souls has a "lot" given to them by Necessity--one that somehow both determines and is determined by their character on earth--which gives them their choice of "lives" to pick from. When each soul had picked a single life to live for their next pass through the world, each of the Fates (Necessity's daughters) does her part to make its choice fixed and irreversible.

What amazes me here is the similarity this process has to the way I've made characters in tabletop RPGs: I go to the Game Master beforehand and use a few dice rolls to determine my character's "stats" (numbers representing things like Intelligence, Strength, and Charisma) much in the same way that a soul coming to the world gets to choose from its lot of lives. If I get seven numbers with seven rolls, I could assign any of those numbers to any "stat:" I could have an 18 in Intelligence and a 3 in Strength just as much as I could have a 3 in Intelligence and an 18 in Strength. But even when we've begun the game (by parallel, when the Fates have already made my choice "necessary" or permanent), many of my actions depend on those stats for a good chance of success. In other words, Necessity has a big role to play the whole way through. Because she determines my traits and whether I succeed or fail at any given action, you could say that Ananke is actually the patron goddess of the role-playing game.

The dice as my limitations

But apart from our mythical digression, what does this mean phenomenologically? I'd suggest that when we play tabletop RPGs, we're recreating essential features of human life as we experience it. What I called Necessity is the part of my life I don't choose--what Adam S. Miller identifies with grace and what Heidegger might have called "facticity": things like my race, sex, personality, or even things like my test scores, choice in partners, etc. The crucial role dice play in role-playing games like D&D shows the importance Necessity has in our lives. If I got to choose the outcome for every action I undertake, life would quickly become dull and lose its meaning. Even if I got to choose my "stats" at the beginning of life (without Necessity limiting my "lot," that is), a world full of Albert Einsteins and Michael Jordans would lose its appeal just as quickly as one without in-the-moment surprise. Tabletop RPGs remind us that the parts of life we didn't choose are as important--if not more so--than the parts we do; without Necessity's apparently meaningless restrictions, meaning itself wouldn't have the contrast it needs to appear.

For example, I implied in a recent post on my blog "Introspecting Autism" that I'm at least partially defined by my limitations as someone with high-functioning autism. If I didn't have the problems with social skills and connection it gave me, I couldn't have become the thinker I am today simply because I wouldn't have had any "food" to feed my intellectual imagination. To put it a different way, the weaknesses I had as a high-functioning autistic gave me something to "work with," and that "something" led me to places I wouldn't have gone if the "material" I worked on had been different. This material is my Necessity; it's what life gave to me from the very start, and though I can't get rid of that Necessity, the greatest parts of my life grow out of it. I guess you could say that my autism is like a "stat" I rolled before my life's RPG campaign started. Despite my handicap, my life's story wouldn't have the same without it.

The Game Master as an "opening"

But the players and the dice aren't the only two elements present in a game session--the GM or Game Master has just an important part to play. If I played an RPG by myself, I might have the dice to work against me as a foil, but it still wouldn't be interesting. The GM gives the RPG campaign a place for the dice and the players to meaningfully interact, since if she isn't present, there isn't any context for the risk of failure that the dice can give. Context is the key word here. Without a context, the players and the dice butt heads directly, and there isn't anything there to make it seem like there's something more there than just players and dice, to suspend their disbelief.

The GM brings about a "separation" between players and dice by making a fictional world that acts as a contextual backdrop for my skill rolls. While I'm still there on the table playing with dice, the GM makes it so I can pretend I'm somewhere else, that I'm, say, a gnome bard and that the dice are just the way the universe works. To put it visually, imagine that the dice and the player are naturally together at the table, but that the GM inserts the game world as a wide space or opening between the two. This lets me forget that I'm so-and-so person playing such-and-such game, at least in a sense. The GM, therefore, does magic, in a way: like Moses parting the Red Sea, she forces apart the dice and the player so that I can enjoy the world in the space he opened up.

But what is this "opening," really? It's what lets the player and the dice interact in a way that I can forget the player is a player and the dice are dice. It's what must exist in order for there to be an in-game world because without it I can't suspend my disbelief enough to forget the physical room I'm in. You could thus say that the in-game world springs into life between the player and the dice. Moreover, the in-game world can only come to life in that way if the GM facilitates it. The GM is the "opener;" she expands the gaming table into a whole world and makes me into a rogue "bibliomancer" or a fast-talking detective.

To put it in still another way, the GM puts a veil between the player and the dice. But this veil and the in-game world aren't different: the world is the veil. But isn't it weird that the image of a "veil" and an "opening" work just as well to describe the GM's role, even though one reveals and the other conceals? Actually, the GM reveals by concealing; by pointing my attention away from the physical game room, she points it to the in-game world.

This has a parallel in the philosopher Martin Heidegger's writings. Pointing out that the Greek word for truth aletheia really means "un-" ("a-") "-covering" ("-letheia"), he teaches that truth isn't just a correct idea of things as they are, but the revelation of Being. Truth takes what is there but still concealed and "shows" it, letting it reveal itself to itself. He also writes that the aletheia of truth rests upon the lethe of "concealment," meaning that truth as revelation relies on what is concealed as its "earth" or ground.

Rolling the dice as consulting NecessityIn gaming terms, aletheia is the GM's opening, because it reveals the game's world to the players who had the raw material to bring that world about. As that opening gives the context for the in-game world to appear, no one can know the physical world without truth or aletheia. And just as aletheia can't exist without the concealment of lethe, the game world can't exist without "normal" physical people and physical dice.

If the dice correspond to life's Necessity and the Game Master corresponds to the "opening" that lets life appear to me in the first place, what does roll the dice correspond to? From what I've said so far, it follows that it represents my conscious will "checking" with my Necessity to see if I can succeed at a given task. Let's say I try my best on a standardized test. Will I succeed at it? Using the RPG as a lens to "read" that situation, you could say that it depends on what Necessity--or the dice--have in mind. Though I have a "stat" that makes me good at tests, Necessity could give me a number that makes it so I fail. Or vice versa: even if I didn't study at all, I could get really lucky. In any scenario where something is up to "chance" (which is pretty much everything), you could say that my will (me as a player) is asking Necessity if I'll succeed (rolling the dice). And though it's really this interaction between Intellect and Necessity or Nous and Ananke going on, the world's opening (the GM) gives me enough context to see that supernatural meeting in terms of everyday life.

In a way I guess you could say that the dice give us the game's story. We go to the dice like diviners using the I Ching or consulting tea leaves, asking them what will happen. But instead of using them to figure out what will happen, we use the dice to make it happen. Perhaps this way of looking at the world is the true meaning behind the Greek philosopher Heraclitus's enigmatic saying:
"Time is a game played beautifully by children."
Anyway, that about wraps up what I have to say. Thanks for reading!

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