Monday, 27 February 2012

Vancian Detachment

I've written before in this blog about how much work and pressure gets put on the GM if everybody has unrealistic expectations of an RPG campaign being a 'story', and if everybody expects the GM's role to be about providing the players with 'fun'. That way lies a madness of scripted encounters, fretting over 'plot' contrivances, and obsession with balance.

I think here that "Vancianism" has been underplayed. People talk a great deal about "Vancian magic" in early D&D, failing to realise that Vance's influence is far more to do with mood and feel than it is about mechanics. I'm currently in the process of reading The Complete Lyonesse, and something I've noticed is that, like with the Dying Earth books, the feeling of emotional detachment from the plot allows you to put the thing down for a week or more without losing momentum, or your interest. (It is this which allows me to read other books alongside it.) The pleasure of reading Vance, I think, is different to the pleasure of reading most modern novels - fantasy or otherwise. It doesn't come from a strong emotional engagement in the characters and what they are doing. It comes from the strange people and locations, the wonderful dialogue, the remarkable efficiency of style and exposition, and the clarity of his vision. It's the opposite of what we think of as a 'page-turner' - you want it to last as long as possible, and the reading actually benefits from taking place in small chunks dispersed across days or weeks, letting you digest it and ruminate over it little by little. Here, the characters, the story, and the narrative are almost secondary to the other pleasures.

In other words, where other novels require a level of emotional investment in the characters and their story, which by turn requires you to read more-or-less every day to keep up momentum and remain part of things, Vance needs almost the opposite.

This is how I feel traditional D&D works, in comparison to the mainstream of modern games. While what the characters are doing in trad D&D is, of course, a big part of what goes on at the table, it feels less like the be-all and end-all than it does as a framing device for a lot of other things - strange people, locations, monsters and ideas; puzzle-solving; lateral thinking; exercising creativity; and, frankly, laughing at the awful mishaps that befall the protagonists at every turn. Rather than being about the characters, it feels more like it is about the players, the world, and the game, with the characters being merely the framework on which it all hangs.

This has far more in common with the atmosphere in Vance than it does in just about any author working in fantasy - probably, in any genre. And this is no doubt why it all feels very un-pressured in comparison with the mainstream vision which I outlined at the start of this post. In the same way that you can dip in-and-out of Vance, because it isn't predicated on emotional investment, you can take trad D&D as it comes, without it having to be wonderfully climactic and narratively important every single session.

This also means that you can dip in and out of trad D&D very easily. You don't need to play the same characters each week - you don't even need to play the same group each week. It also means you can alternate players, West Marches and Flailsnails style, extremely easily.

Of course, this isn't limited to traditional D&D. My campaigns veer this way almost regardless of system, but there are certain other games which lend themselves to Vancian Detachment - including Call of Cthulu (the mood is more important than the PCs, who are disposable and who go mad or get eaten by Shub-Niggurath almost constantly), Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (ditto), and Rolemaster (roll dice, consult table, see how many arms your PC loses in the round). I wonder if it's any accident that these are probably still among the most popular systems being used today.


  1. Absolutely.

    It's all about style.

    "Wait, you're telling me I just lost my whole left arm?"
    "Well, let's say it's undergone a Vancian Detachment."


    I will kick the can further down the road by saying that a degree of Detachability (if not always mandatory Detachment) is a hallmark of every book I like.

    At some point, when I was young, while watching some movie (Apocalypse Now?) I realized for the first time that the tragic things that were happening to characters I liked in the story were happening because _they had to happen in that story for it to be that story_ and so if I felt a pang about it, I had to let it go and be more happy that the story itself was unfolding and being good.

    In other words, I realized not every story is Star Wars.

    Forever after that I started noticing that critics I considered kinda weenie & exhausting & wrong started their reviews by telling you how wonderful and involving the _characters_ or _story_ were whereas ones I liked pointed me toward books I'd like by talking about _how the story was told_.

    Of course this isn't the first time this has come up in your comments and no doubt someone will say they like the styleless-but-emotionally-involving-stories and give examples. Well: we like different things.

  2. I'll agree that Vance's style is dry, but it's not without arousing feeling in the reader, especially if you step outside the Dying Earth novels and run across one of his sympathetic protagonists. What he is very good at is describing situations of yearning, injustice, loss, triumph, or anxiety, but communicating feeling almost entirely through the situation instead of through physical or language descriptions.

    Yes, this is a trait of good RPG adventure writing, too; it forbears from the kind of mind-probing that the late 80's and 90's were notorious for (boxed text: "You feel an indescribable sorrow come over you ...")

  3. I've been rereading a lot of P.K. Dick lately, and I get a similar sense that while there are characters that he wants you to be involved with or invested in, he's writing more about the structures and the systems they are struggling through. Most of the novels don't really have a happy ending, even if the protagonist sort of gets by in the end (e.g., 3 Stigmata, Flow my Tears, Divine Invasion), because the universe has been shown to be a construct of madness, alienation and paranoia, and it's beyond anyone's control. So bad things do happen to the characters, no matter how much the reader wants them to succeed and to have the problems resolves nicely. Sorry, the universe, your existence, your mind, are all broken. Hope for the best.

  4. While I wasn't going explicit with the detachment angle, I was trying to make a very similar point here:

  5. Of course this isn't the first time this has come up in your comments and no doubt someone will say they like the styleless-but-emotionally-involving-stories and give examples. Well: we like different things.

    I tend to feel that in emotionally-involving stories that I do enjoy it is by means of the style that the story/characters are made emotionally involving anyway.

  6. Sorry, but I am not with you.

    I tried to read "Lyonesse" once (after being very well entertained by "The Dying Earth") and I very much liked the beginning of the book. But then RL intervened and I had to put the book aside for a few weeks.
    When I got back to it I found myself lost, and couldn't get back "into" the story, and the weird world.

  7. Got to agree with Greyhawk Knight here but I will go one further.

    My players don't want to be emotionally detached from their characters, the setting or the story. If they did they could go play video games.

    I also don't believe getting a story out of an RPG campaign is an 'unrealistic expectation'. We do it all the time. Did it Saturday. Will do it again next session.

    I liked Vance's work when I read it 30 something years ago and I love Philip K. Dick but Vance is harder for me to get into in recent years.

  8. Barking Alien: My players don't want to be emotionally detached from their characters, the setting or the story. If they did they could go play video games.

    Thanks for informing me that my gaming style is akin to playing video games. I really appreciate that.

    I also don't believe getting a story out of an RPG campaign is an 'unrealistic expectation'. We do it all the time. Did it Saturday. Will do it again next session.

    Well, anything can be a 'story' insofar as stuff happens in a chronological order and events flow from each other. On that basis, indeed, a session in front of a video game is a story too, is it not? "First I shot some monsters. Then I found a key and unlocked a door. Then I shot some more monsters. Then I got a better gun. Then I shot some more monsters. The End."

    When I say 'story' I think it's obvious that I'm referring to something resembling a short story, novel, play or film. It's the desire for that which puts unnecessary pressure on everyone concerned.

  9. I should add, by the way, that it's absurd to imply that the only difference between an RPG and a video game is that the latter involves being "emotionally detached from [the] characters, the setting or the story" and the former does not. There are approximately 10 billion other differences on top of that, I would suggest.

  10. And it also ignores the fact that plenty of video games involve emotional engagement with the story and characters (viz: Final Fantasy).

    Basically, I'd like you to rethink that comment entirely.

  11. Also, the Dying Earth seemed to me to be like a series of encounters, where the individual 'bits' were what made it cool rather than an overall story arc.

  12. In my very limited experience, first-person shooters are routinely 'immersive' in a way that pen-and-paper RPGs aren't.

  13. To be fair, I don't think noisms is saying that there isn't any emotional attachment at all (it's doubtful that anybody will feel nothing on the death of a character, for example); more that the game isn't predicated on it.

    Which absolutely is not like playing videogames, because even if you are playing pen and paper with a simulationist bent, the number of verbs* alone makes a difference of several orders of magnitude.

    And there's some sort of conflict between "story" and "narrative" here -- I tend to think of the first as "predetermined series of events" and the second as "wot happened" (much like how noisms recounts a session of playing a videogame).

    * Where 'verbs' = "How can I interact with this"

  14. Yep, what Thomas M said. You can call "a bunch of stuff happened, and it was fun and interesting" a story if you want, but that's a different thing to a plot with a beginning, middle and end. I think we all know what that difference is - we just might give the two things different names.

  15. I'm apologize. I often forgot that words on the internet offend more easily then they do in real life and that assumptions are made more easily as well. I will amend my comments...

    "My players **and only my players so far as I am aware** don't want to be emotionally detached from their characters, the setting or the story. If they did they could go play video games **as they and I, and as far as I am aware within the realm of reasonable doubt, only they and I** feel there is less of an emotional attachment there then there is in RPGs)."

    Now this...

    "I also don't believe getting a story out of an RPG campaign is an 'unrealistic expectation'. We do it all the time. Did it Saturday. Will do it again next session."

    ...I stand behind as you don't know my games, my GMing style or my players' play style. We pattern our sessions like TV episodes or issues of a comic book. Have for many, many years. So yes, it is not unrealistic to have the games feel like a film, novel or short story.

    'Not unrealistic' does not mean easy but it likewise doesn't mean just short of impossible. It means if you take care to do so it works, especially if you've been doing it for 15 years or so.

    I mean, I don't understand why or how people enjoy the standard D&D dungeon crawl but that doesn't mean I think it can't be enjoyed or that it's unrealistic to think someone could make one I would think is fun.

  16. I've gone with both, (gives self pat on back) but this version is so much easier for picking days.

    "Can't make it? Ok, we'll tell you what happened when you get back."

    rather than having to regig finely balanced relationship webs or whatever.

    I imagine your Cyberpunk game shifts more towards being about the character's weirdnesses, and so is not quite as easy to chop and change.

  17. Barking Alien: I wasn't offended - you'd know if I was. It doesn't happen easily. I was just pointing out you were getting into badwrongfun territory - although then again so am I. I think in deliberately and cooperatively setting up games to be like TV or comic book series you're breaking the fourth wall and doing something a bit different to what I meant - I'm talking about GM-centric story where the players expect the GM to tightly plot an entertaining narrative. I think that puts a lot of pressure on the GM and rarely comes off.

    Josh W: Yeah, we need the quorum of players because the character-centric nature of the game sort of precludes people just coming and going. Although it might be possible. We just haven't tried it.