Friday, January 25, 2013

In Defense of the Ordinary

Some years ago, my friends and I had the pleasure of meeting Steven Brust, one of my favorite writers, and talking about writing. I asked him about the best way to write epic events. Steven Brust’s answer was brilliantly simple: in opposite proportion. The greater and more complicated the events you tell about are, the simpler should the language and narrative techniques be.

If you look at some of the greatest works of speculative fiction, you will see works that describe very outlandish and fascinating worlds, but focus on the plainest events (for these worlds and times). Take Starship Troopers, the Forever War, Flatland, the City & the City, When Gravity Fails, The Star Diaries, Homeland and countless other works.

It is true that the events of Homeland change Drizzet’s life forever and leaves a deep impact on his family, friends and enemies, but they don’t change the world. They don’t even change his city or school. Furthermore, Drizzet’s desertion only occurs after many, many pages of ordinary experiences. All these murders, conspiracies and dark sorcery – they are what constitutes daily life in that world. Presumably, a young man deciding to escape this somehow, is also something not unimaginable, though certainly uncommon.

Salvatore doesn’t shatter the world, allowing us nothing, but fleeting glimpses at the shards. He takes us on a grand tour and concludes with a surprise.

In the same way, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, establishes a strong sense of normality and shows us how a typical adventure in his world looks like, before culminating in the dragon’s defeat and resulting War of the Five Armies. And even these are, in a way, ordinary for his world because both dragon-slaying and fantasy wars are events its citizens are well aware of.

Just one of these lazy afternoons...
Recently, I notice a tendency among beginning DMs to turn to extraordinary, paradigm-shifting events from the very beginning of their campaign. I think they are forgetting that for young players, doing anything in a fantasy world is already extraordinary. Just casting fireball at a gang of orcs is already interesting, banal though it may seem to gaming veterans. If you start big, all you do is establish bigness as the default.

For example, a game in which the players discover that an ancient God is about to wake up and devour the world and, despite being low-level characters, no one but them can stop this, offers little satisfaction and makes no sense. It feels forced and artificial and will be treated as such by young players. And why wouldn’t it? If you never had to deal with anything, but the lives of billions and the power to change the universe, what does one life mean? One contaminated river, one hungry family, one displaced monster – they are, objectively speaking, inconsequential. There is nothing there to make you feel for the world, turning role playing game into nothing but a flowery war game.

Suspense of disbelief can’t work without a framework. The players want to believe in your campaign, but you’ve got to give them at least something to cling to. There is a reason why every published adventure includes hooks. Hooks are as important out of character as they are in character. 

Now, consider a game where the PCs are the militia of a small humanoid settlement in hostile territory. This premise offers no less challenges than the Cthulhu pestiche, and maintains a sense of normality at the same time. For me, small quests such as rescuing a kidnapped child from the hag sisters, defeating the goblin raiders, or finding the treasonous cultist inside the village, offer infinitely more potential for drama and imagining than the grand quest of finding the nine parts of a magic weapon needed to kill the evil God.
For a game to have value as a simulation of reality, as a collective story, and an emotional and intellectual outlet, it must be ordinary, at least at first. This doesn’t mean that the events should be mundane and the world similar to ours. Au contraire, the world should be strange and fascinating and the stories should involve as much of its magic as possible. If the setting is good, the world’s uniqueness will organically enrich your stories and they will feel like life itself -- the true advantage of tabletop RPG over other media.