Thursday, 16 May 2019

The USP of RPGs and the Phenomenology of New Beginnings

There is no word in English to my knowledge which describes the feeling one gets at the start of a fictional adventure. We have words like "excitement", "anticipation", and so on which describe the general feeling of looking forward to something. But nothing which specifically refers to that special kind of looking-forwardness that you feel when you first crack open a long novel or opening book in a saga; sit down to watch a Hollywood epic or long Netflix series; or begin a D&D campaign. You will be intimately familiar with that feeling, I am sure. It is the feeling which says, "Buckle in - almost anything could happen next."

That feeling is a long-lost cousin of the ontological flicker. Cast your mind back to the first time you read The Fellowship of the Ring or A Game of Thrones, watched Star Wars, started a long-running D&D campaign, or similar. The sensation of anticipation that you get in those circumstances doesn't come from knowing what's going to follow. It comes from guessing at it. You begin with a very vague sense of what's the come (in the sense that you think The Fellowship of the Ring probably won't feature cowboys or aliens or a murder mystery), and a myriad of different possibilities opening up like a vista in front of you. Who are these characters? What are they going to do? Where are they going to go? Where will they end up? Your mind starts racing with fifty ideas a second about what the answers to those questions might be, and you start to mentally slaver at the prospect of discovering what they in fact are. To refer to another family resemblance, it is a bit like the giddy feeling one gets when one steps off the airport shuttle into a new and unfamiliar city and looks about oneself and says, "OK, so this is Rome/Paris/Tokyo/Frankfurt/Moscow/Geneva/Chicago/Cape Town. What next?" You think you have a bit of an idea what Rome is supposed to be like. But that's about the size of it, and now you intend to find out about the real thing.

As you progress with your reading, the vista of possibilities very gradually narrows. With each passing chapter new possibilities open up, but many more are closed off (it becomes clear that the story will be about Frodo and not some other person in Middle Earth; it becomes clear it will be about destroying the Ring and not, say, a holiday in Rivendell; it becomes clear that the Fellowship will go into the Mines of Moria and not go any of the other million places they could conceivably go, and so on). Reading a work of fiction, or watching a film or TV series, then, is an exercise in the gradual closing off of possibilities. Slowly, but surely, potential plot paths wither away until, with the final page, you can look back and see that there was only ever one route from Chapter One to The End after all.

The USP of RPGs (provided you aren't doing the pre-plotted thing) is that, almost uniquely in possible fictional narratives, there is no such closing-off - or does not have to be. Because of the influence of random chance, and because there is no fixed ending and no real authorial control over what happens, new vistas of possibility open up all the time. It's not so much that you get a gradual narrowing of potential plot paths until the vista disappears in the ultimate denouement. It's more like you are constantly climbing from one hill to the next; each time you get a new view, and while what you can see has a relationship to where you've come from, you can never quite have anticipated its precise contours, nor what the view from the top of the next peak is going to be like.

What is similar, though, is that special kind of anticipation for which we have no word. Rolling up a group of PCs at the start of a campaign is a lot like reading the first chapters of a fantasy saga as the characters are introduced, or watching the first half hour of a long-running film- or TV series. How is this all going to pan out? It's an intoxicating sensation. Maybe the Germans have got a word for it instead. They've got one for everything.


  1. For fiction this sort of thing has been turbocharged a lot by the internet. Before this was mostly a private thing but now we have people combing books for clues, making up crackpot theories and discussing them on the internet.

    This seems to have fed back to a lot of authors as stuff that one reader can miss is going to be obvious after 1,000 readers collate everything. So you get authors balanced between not having any surprises left and having people missed off that you're not given them the sequel they wrote in their heads.

    Also you get authors leaving bread crumbs that're only going to be picked up by the obsessive hivemind because no normal reader reading by themselves is ever going to pick up on them. For example Ser Bonifer Hasty in ASoIaF has an interesting life story but the only way just about anyone is going to pick up on him is by reading the wiki as he gets mentioned in four short snuppets scattered across four big books.

    1. Yeah, I try to avoid all that kind of thing for precisely these reasons.

    2. Surprises are overrated. The endless chase for the next shocking reveal is a folly.

      Lots of novels have 300 to 400 pages, but a big revelation is only one moment. Better try make the whole thing worth reading than being the setup for a punchline.

  2. The dirty little secret of the German language: Out gramar allows us to string words together into what looks like a propper noun, and with practice it comes so natural that we do it while speaking. It's just that the words don't need to be connected with terms like "of", "with", "by", and so on. If we don't have a word for something, we can make one at the drop of a hat. You could call it "Spontane Wortneuschöpfung".

    Among the established terms you could come across in the wild, the closest I could think of is "Aufbruchstimmung", the departure mood. Though in English this feels as having more of an emphasis on leaving, while in German it can also express a forward looking anticipation.
    Still not quite a paerfect match. I think with some effort one could construct something better.

    1. That's your homework!

      I suppose nothing stops you doing it in English except convention. Adventure-beginning-ness would work.

    2. Perhaps a term derived from a particularly strong example, like Quixotism.

  3. I guess you've never played an Adventure Path, eh Noisms? They're a lot more like reading a book! >:)