Friday, 10 May 2019
Reading RPG Books and the "Ontological Flicker"
Reading an RPG book is I think almost a unique experience in that it induces a special kind of what Brian McHale in Postmodern Fiction called the "ontological flicker".
What he meant by this was what happens in the space between a book's physical text (the paper, the words on the page) and the fictional reality it creates in your head as you read. When you read a novel, for instance, your attention seems to oscillate between the physical object of the book, and the imaginary fictional world it presents in your mind - flipping from one to the other and back again endlessly. One millisecond you're reading a sentence, then you're imagining what it represents, and then you're back to the text again, repeating ad infinitum - and you do all this entirely instinctively and unconsciously. Indeed, you can't really help yourself doing it. You'll know instantly what that feeling is like, I am sure, when it is described to you in this way, even if you have never quite thought of it like that before.
You can think of fiction as existing in the tension within the liminal space between two poles: the physical reality of the book/text and the false reality it produces in your mind as you read.
An RPG book like, say, the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual, also has this character of producing ontological flickering, but it happens in a different way to a novel, short story, or other text - because what you imagine tends not to be merely a picture in your head of what is being described on the page. Rather, it tends to be a range of speculated, hypothetical scenarios inspired by it. To read the text of the "Cockatrice" entry is not for your mind to merely to flicker between the physical text and an imagined image of the cockatrice. It's for it to flicker between the physical text and visions of cockatrices appearing in many different scenarios - in some campaign you are currently involved in; as a random encounter result; as a creature in a "lair" on a hex map; in a fight with PCs; and so on. In other words, the ontological flicker is between text on the one hand, and a range of imaginary things which are perhaps only very indirectly connected to it.
RPG materials, in other words, exist in a somewhat different space to fiction: a liminal space between the physical reality of the book and the spectrum of many and varied false realities it produces in your mind as you read.
This is true even of, for instance, looking at a hex map. To do so is to enter a space of tension between the real object - the image - and what it produces in the mind: ideas for what to put here, what to put there, what this mountain would actually look like "on the ground", what this forest contains, how deep this lake is. It's not one fictional reality, but many brief fictional realities which exist for slivers of seconds before they are gone.
This is what makes reading good RPG books so pleasurable - a bit like reading tends of thousands of novels boiled into one; much less depth, it is true, but much more imaginative potential within that ontological flicker.