Thursday, 29 December 2011

On Ontology (Geddit?) and Postmodernism

Wyzard wrote a comment on this post that I think deserves a wider audience than being stuck at the bottom of a 40-comment long thread:

Being an avid Planescape player from the early-mid 90's, I thought that campaign setting had a robust take on what alignments meant... after all, the very substance of the Outer Planes was made up of the belief/consciousness of the Multiverse's denizens. A couple of things to consider: Order/Chaos wasn't much of a moral axis than an ontological one.

Lawfulness reflected one's belief of reality being externally/objectively based/defined/grounded; one's viewpoints, perspectives, understandings derived from truths outside of oneself. [The Lawful Neutral plane of Mechanus expressed such qualities in a number of ways, such as the environmental effect of all spoken languages from any tongue being understood identically by all.]

Chaos indicated that one's belief of reality was primarily (or even solipsistic) self-created, subjective definition/genesis, intuitionally granted, etc... or the existence of an objective universe isn't considered important and/or knowable. [The Chaotic Neutral plane of Limbo was a maelstrom of constantly changing elements, a soup of possibility that only took solidity with one's thought/willpower.]

This strikes me as a very elegant and, philosophically, quite interesting approach. What I like about it (and actually, what I liked about Planescape) is that it is completely, and in fact sensibly, incoherent.

Which is to say, there's something pleasingly postmodern about the notion that there is no Truth, just many approaches to it. You might even call it radically postmodern, in that it doesn't just deny that we can know what the Truth is; it implicitly says: there is no Truth, just many truths; deal with it. But the incoherence isn't just pleasing in that sense - it also makes the game work. It says to the players nothing less than the following: "We, the designers, take no position on religion or morality or philosophy or ethics. We're just giving you a toolkit to have fun with. If this involves killing orcs in dungeons, fine. If it involves actual semi-serious battles of beliefs, that's fine too. Go for it, and remember, we don't care what you think." And that's great.

D&D: postmodernism but with orcs. Of course, I knew this years ago, but I believe in the value of repetition.


  1. It's a good insight that can never be repeated too many times.

  2. Ironic that the "Storytelling games" of the 90's proceeded from the opposite assumption, that D&D was only this very rigid, one-sided thing that permitted only one very limited type of gaming. In retrospect, I'd say they were rather the ones who made gamers like my younger self believe there was one true way of playing and enjoying RPGs... But White Wolf seem to have been run by a bunch of New Age hippies, so maybe that's no real surprise.

  3. Never worked out how to run a campaign in the extreme chaos and law planes; those same ontological features came up in how I approached them: I started trying to make mechanus all about strange puzzles all sorted out beforehand and it got unwieldly, and with limbo I didn't know where to start.

    Amusing that my reactions to trying to prep for them pretty much matched their ontological inclinations!

    @ Ronson, seems pretty normal to me:

    Planescape focused on the postmodernism of D&D, on it's metanarrative subversion potential and wonderful and chaotic juxtapositions etc, other games did different stuff outside of D&D, planescape did different stuff within it.

    Just different people exploring making things thematic via the means they had available!