Monday, 2 June 2008

Mona Lisa in the Dungeon

I remember reading an essay a few years ago whose title and author I've forgotten, but which was about Icons of Western Art. It sounds like it was written by George Steiner but for some reason I want to say Stephen Greenblatt; it's probably neither.

Anyway, it was all about how every genre of Western art has, basically, a Mona Lisa. That is, each one has a single iconic example which comes to signify the genre itself, and which in a sense becomes the platonic 'ideal' form. What is surprising (according the author whose name I've forgotten) is that very often these titanic pieces aren't the best. The Mona Lisa is mediocre, Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's worst plays, The Lord of the Rings is very much a flawed masterpiece, and Moby Dick would benefit from having two thirds of it cut out - but something about these works caught onto our culture's collective imagination and wouldn't let go.

Now, RPGs aren't really art, but it's funny how the same applies in our hobby. I'm talking, of course, about Dungeons and Dragons, especially its older varieties. There are so many better - much better; quicker, more intuitive, easier and more comprehensive - examples. There are huge, silly, awful flaws rife within the game. Whole swathes of the rules don't even make any sense. So many of the assumptions it is founded on are utterly bizarre.

And yet it works. And not only does it work; it's the best role playing game ever. Why this should be is as much a mystery as to why Mona Lisa attracts throngs of thousands to the Louvre each day and why Hamlet still occupies the position of "greatest play ever written".

Spot the difference:

I wonder if anybody's ever statted up the Mona Lisa...

The Mona Lisa
Chaotic Evil Cleric of Diinkarazan
Level 11

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