Thursday, 29 October 2020

We Need Long Campaigns

Pay close attention to what has happened to your mind. You are beset, besieged, bewildered by notifications from your phone, your social media accounts, your emails. You are unable to sit at a computer for longer than 10 minutes without giving in to the relentless need to check, something, anything, nothing. You switch on the TV but can only tolerate a minute or two of what you're watching before the urge to fiddle with some electronic device becomes overwhelming. You open up YouTube or Netflix and flick between short videos, chopped up segments of longer ones, that can hold your attention only for a moment before you move on to something else. You spend hours each day, if you tot up all the fragments of time here, there and everywhere, scrolling Twitter or Facebook feeds, or scanning over news websites, or swiping right on Tinder. You are not really living, and you know it. You can picture yourself on your death bed, looking back at your life and regretting how much time you spent on passive time-wasting bullshit, but you still can't shake your bad habits - and anyway, there's always another tweet, text message, email or TikTok to salve the ennui for another second or two. 

Cultivating the capacity to concentrate, think, and plan for deep, long, rich periods of time has never been more urgent than now. We slide toward dystopia. What we do with our inner lives has always mattered, but now it matters more. 

We need long campaigns. We need to sit down with the same group of people on a regular basis over the course of years, telling the kind of stories which require concentration and thought and, above all, loyalty; stories which gain their own momentum through peaks and troughs, ebbs and flows, ups and downs and ins and outs; stories in which the events which happen matter because they have a context and a background and an unknown future waiting to be discovered. We don't need the inconsequential frippery of the one-shot; we need time.

When Rachmaninoff wrote his 18th variation of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, he knew that he had a hit. "This one is for my agent," he said. It was a flip remark, but he was hitting on something that mattered. The 18th variation is justly famous, but taken on its own it is candyfloss. It is pop music. It is 3 minutes that make you feel a bit of a warm fuzz before you skip onto the next thing. It is mass market. But take it in its context, somewhere in the middle of a difficult and complicated 23 minutes of virtuoso concertante playing (not the crescendo, not the culmination, but almost shyly hidden), it is something else altogether: a moment of dizzying transcendent beauty in the midst of something moody and intellectual and strange. Like a gap between dark clouds through which a ray of golden light gleams for a moment before being once more concealed. A taste of some vast ocean of feeling the content of which can be communicated only in the smallest of wordless doses, lest it overwhelm you and the player herself. You have to work to get this feeling - you have to put in the time. But which is best: to sit with eyes closed and really listen for the payoff, or to gorge yourself on a YouTube clip (the modern day equivalent of a Best Classical Music EVER! CD album) before moving on to the next treat?



Rachmaninoff knew this about music. Listening to Stravinsky's The Firebird, whose moment of climax is one of the great eucatastrophes in all of Western art, he was moved to remark, "Great God! What a work of genius this is!" You can only identify it as a such when you have been on the long, difficult, sometimes dissonant, always challenging journey with Prince Ivan, Kaschei the Immortal, and the Firebird herself; when you have put in the hours (the minutes, anyway). The music repays your effort, your focus, your loyalty. If you don't, all you get is a cheap and meaningless thrill - a triumph of thought and feeling and taste reduced to a bit of ASMR-inducing fluff. 


Almost everything worth doing, knowing, reading, hearing, feeling or saying in life has the character of being unobtainable via shortcuts except in a form which diminishes both you and it. Why would you expect RPGs to be any different? 

11 comments:

  1. It took me some time to stumble on a working environment, and it was an accident, the bottom of the garden at night, without light and my laptop-emacs in dark mode. No internet and no books (too dark to read). I can either sit in the dark and think or write.

    I think even more unwholesome than contextless chunks of music is that music has become an attendant rather than something which consumes our attention. Music is ever-present to screen out our too close neighbour while we work or to patch over the lulls in daily activity. Not for me though, I have a nice hi-fi and listen to music directly, I was talking about you lot.

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    1. Roald Dahl used to write in his shed at the bottom of his garden, getting up relatively early to do so. He'd then have a gin & tonic at about 11.30am and finish for the day. That sounds pretty much like the ideal.

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    2. Ted Hughes wrote in a cupboard for a time. And blind Joyce wrote lying on a bed with a thick pencil. I have many of the Paris Reviews and it seems that writers are extreme in their working variety. My advice is that you need to randomise your environment until you are productive and then stick with that.

      I need to get away from my library, which is the most convenient place to write. Try this, figure out a dark place to take your laptop. PITCH DARK. and use the black background and white text format. Create a pure environment.

      If I try to write looking at the spines of the great works, are you kidding, that is going nowhere.

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  2. It is true that between 10-20 sessions there occurs a gradual transformation as the memes diminish and the characters become ingrained, to the point their death provokes a pang of emotional distress. The problem is that best practice and the marketplace are natural enemies in this arena so men are ensnared with promises of happiness, glory and more fun while the game becomes an unwieldy mess. As we age, the players slough off and the available-time increases.

    I've long thought the key to a succesfull game with longevity is to figure out how to run a good session and iterate but maybe this trend should be amended. Maybe it should be more difficult to get into so as to condition players to alter their time preference.

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    1. I think that approach might lead one into the error of technocracy: carefully calibrating a mangerial solution to a specific problem in a particular context and then scaling it, forgetting that context and specificity matter. What works at the micro level (what makes a good session) and what works at the macro level (what makes a good campaign) are, I think, fundamentally different.

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    2. I think there is probably an overlap of working mechanisms such as tension, stakes, option fatigue and intermittent reward, which may be scaled up without all too much problem, but there are absolutely solutions that will work at the session level but can be ruinous at the campaign level. The first thing that comes to mind is hand-waving seemingly tedious mechanisms like encumberance or light-tracking to maintain pacing, never realizing that over time, these systems add to the complexity and versimilitude of the game.

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  3. I like some 3 minute long songs :) But it is a different feeling than immersing yourself into something longer, for sure. Depends on my mood, I like both, and find both meaningful.

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  4. I wish I could have a one year LotFP campaign! But all my friends only want to play Vampire and they play and GM multiple Vampire games and only let me GM the occasional one-shot or or two-three session adventure.

    In Mexico, people don't care about anything that's not Vampire or 5e and my listening is so poor I can't joy in an English game because I don't understand 80% of what's being said.

    Maybe I have to look for a play-by-post game.

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  5. I agree with this - the emergent 'oh wow' moments that only come as part of turning the corner on the journey and seeing the thing revealed. For me two great examples of this effect were in book series, one Richard Morgans A Land Fit For Heroes series and also Tad Williams Otherland series - both where the threat sign for the nemesis had been flagged chapters or even books earlier and then the heart stopping moment when the threat sign reappears as the protagonists are in an unprepared state is fantastic.

    Lore knowledge leading to payoff is fantastic - it can be slightly short-cut by deep player setting lore knowledge so clues can be understood (Planescape, World of Darkness being two examples I have seen) but the principle is the same, this is just a case where the time has been sunk on the setting and lore before the campaign ever started.

    Great piece.

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  6. What we need is larger fonts in this website, LOL.

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