Monday, 3 January 2022

The Phenomenology of the Longing for Adventure: Belle (Reprise) and the Aesthetic of Rogueishness

Beauty and the Beast may be the most perfect film in cinematic history, and this scene may most perfectly encapsulate one of the purest and best of human emotions - the longing for adventure, or wanderlust:

If an alien came to earth and asked me to demonstrate why it is that human beings set musical accompaniment to drama, I would show them this scene. I can't think of a better specimen to illustrate how music, words and visual performance can combine to both replicate and also simultaneously refine and distil a sensation all at the same time. How could one possibly explain wanderlust in a more accurate way than what is achieved here in a mere minute of screen time? 

This feeling lies at the core of human experience. For where would we be without it? Still scraping bits of flint from the bottom of the Rift Valley to fashion into cutting implements. I certainly felt it as a youngster, dreaming of life beyond the grey limits of the horizons of northwest England, and I feel it still, when I recall the tingling feeling of anticipation when turning up at an airport for an overseas trip, the smell of the freshly cleaned interior of an aeroplane when you first step on board, the excitement of stepping out of the door of a hotel in a foreign city and how it dispels the tiredness of the thousands of miles you have just traversed. 

It's at the core of fantasy fiction too. The genre has from its very beginnings been defined by characters who, whether reluctantly or not, have thrust themselves from the comfortable obscurity of home into the drama and wonder of the Great Beyond. And readers have also traditionally responded to the centrepiece works within the field - whether by David Eddings or Michael Moorcock - because those books have allowed such feelings to be vicariously savoured. You will, I am sure, identify with this. It's certainly why as an adolescent I devoured this stuff by the wheelbarrow, and why I still cast my eye over the Fantasy & SF shelves in bookshops whenever I visit one, hoping to discover something that looks like it will instantiate that feeling. (Though these days, it never seems to.) 

The OSR 'braintrust' rightly, I think, spurned the wide-eyed high fantasy of the late TSR period in favour of a return to OD&D's more down-and-dirty, rogueish roots. One of Zak's best contributions (he did have some) was the observation that this made running an 'old school' game so much more effective and straightforward. But he was hardly alone in noticing that it is so much easier to make a campaign based around player agency if they are greedy tomb-robbers rather than the cast of characters from the latest Wheel of Time knock-off quest novel. The central argument here is simply that if the PCs are down at heel, misbegotten rogues, with the aim of getting rich quick, they do not require the DM to generate a narrative for them to follow - they drive their own agenda. This was contrasted with the Dragonlance approach, still so depressingly common among mainstream published adventures, in which the DM's job was to come up with a complicated 'story' through which to lead the players by the nose. This distinction needed to be drawn, in order really to make clear what the whole point of the OSR was.

However, in overemphasising this aesthetic, let's call it, of rogueishness, the feeling of wanderlust - of playing an RPG as a kind of vicarious exploration of the 'Great Wide Somewhere' - has I think been undersold by what movers and shakers remain in the OSR and its penumbra. This has not been helped by a general preference for dark settings, which one would hardly be interested in exploring for their own sake if one were unfortunate enough to be born into them. The overall effect has often been to make OSR settings and materials feel somewhat cynical and mean-spirited, and out of touch with what makes the very exercise of fantasy so appealing. What has been downplayed is a sense of adventure

We could all use a bit of Belle in our lives. Capturing that sense of wanderlust is something I want to bring to the table (both figuratively and literally) in the year to come. 


  1. Many comments spring to mind.

    First: this particular Disney film may be my favorite of all time. Many are better done (Moana), or have better music (Frozen), or are funnier (Mermaid), yet it remains my favorite...and, yes, I absolutely identify with a middle-class intellectual girl longing for adventure amongst a bunch of simps only looking for their next beer, their next baguette, or who they want to marry.


    The idea of the "reluctant adventurer" (the DragonLance concept), this trope of "I-don't-want-to-quest-but-I-have-these-skills/abilities/Destiny-and-if-I-don't-then-who-will?" is so AWFUL from a stance of motivating or incentivizing players. Sure, the first time or two it might be fun...but how many times can you go back to that to that particular well, before it becomes ho-hum?

    If one wants to live in a fantasy universe (and what D&D player does not?) one needs a reason to stay and a means of (character) survival. Fantasy farming might provide the latter, but it's hardly the adventure that is the initial draw of the RPG experience. I think Gygax had this nailed way back in '79:

    But I agree that the whole roguishness angle HAS led to an unappealing aesthetic that can be mean-spirited and cynical. And it has everything (IMO) to do with folks being uncomfortable with portraying treasure hunters in any light BESIDES that of rogues. Historic conquistadors generally didn't see themselves as assholes, committing genocide and stomping out other human cultures: many thought they were doing "God's Work" to save souls and stop human sacrifice, etc.

    Perhaps because of the intimate nature of role-playing (and our identification with character and our putting ourselves in the imaginary environment with our minds) people are uncomfortable with the GAME aspect of the game. Most of us do not aspire to be slum lord building owners, jacking up rents and evicting people in the name of profits...but what is the game of Monopoly all about? Most of us don't think Nazis or Fascists were very nice people, but someone has to play the Germans and Italians in a game of Axis & Allies.

    The idea that a "holy man" (a cleric or priest of any good religion) would go around robbing and murdering folks conjures to mind ONLY the possibility that THIS PERSON IS AN ASSHOLE. And so this must be a game about ASSHOLES. Unless there is some HUGE DARK EVIL FORCE that WE MUST QUEST AGAINST FOR THE GOOD OF ALL. But that's not necessarily the case. Maybe we're playing a magical fantasy game where there ARE different factionally opposed forces ("good" and "evil," "law" and "chaos" being humans' stopgap names for them) and each side has their champions. And if so, maybe it takes MONEY to live in such a world: building castles and churches and buying food and equipment and whatnot. And maybe there are some adventurers who don't care about one side or another, but there are other adventurers who DO, and regardless these disparate individuals are going to band together for mutual profit because that's what people do.

    And the orcs worshipping their dark gods are a good target. After all, they EAT people.

    It's a game. I feel no remorse in playing it the way it is written, neither turning it into a Tolkien knock-off, nor descending into GrimDark cynicism. It doesn't twinge my Catholic guilt complex anymore than stomping the Allied forces in a spirited game of A&A. I can still go to church with a clear conscience, can still vote for progressive ideals, can still raise my children to be humans who champion the poor and exploited (both at home and abroad) and who follow the "Love Thy Neighbor" teaching of Christ.

    For me, D&D is the easiest way of finding "adventure" without leaving home.

  2. This made me think of the Greek Myth D&D campaign I'm running for some kids. So far just about every mission they've gone on (except for one pirate hunting mission they got sent on as punishment for starting a fight in a king's feat hall, but then they bailed on that one...) has been their own idea. What REALLY helps is that they know enough Greek myths to formulate plans for example "I want to tame pegasus!"

    One problem I often run into with sandboxes is that the players don't have enough information to meaningfully weigh options. This explains a lot of things that pop up in D&D a lot such as:

    A. Dungeons. Proper dungeons are tiny sandboxes. These sandboxes being so tiny makes it easier for players to figure out WTF is going on.

    B. Canned plotlines where the PCs are lead around by the nose. PCs don't need to make informed choices if they don't get no choices.

    C. Murderhobos. If you don't know shit about the world you're in "steal everything that isn't nailed down" is an easy thing to default to.

    The problem is how to get the PCs enough information for them to make informed choices about what to do. Their characters have been living in that world for decades so they know all kinds of shit that the PCs don't and it's hard to bridge the gap (which makes sci-fi especially hard for me since there's so much shit that my PC knows as a matter of course that I don't know).

    You could really lean into "your PC doesn't know SHIT" and have the campaign about figuring out about the world. Empire of the Petal Throne seems to have this as a default.

    Using the real world can work well a lot of the time but often each person knowing LOTS about certain issues but zero about others causes weird mis-matching expectations. For example in my Delta Green game I have a hard time coming up with plausible technobabble for the player who knows MUCH MUCH MUCH more about IT than I do. I end up with similar problems in historical settings in which I know a lot more history than the GM does.

    Giving players reams of setting information is often a non-starter.

    Using "it's Greek Myth!" has been working well for me so far since EVERYONE knows the basic of Greek Myth but it's all so vague and contradictory that you can stick most anything anywhere and have a lot of freedom to work with as a DM.

    It also gives the PCs things to dream about like meeting their favorite god, or getting into Olympus for fighting the scariest monsters.

    It's just hard to have those kind of big dreams in a world where the PCs don't have all of that kind of knowledge out of books to dream about really seeing like Belle does.

  3. Have you seen Honest Movie Trailers Beauty and the Beast (1991)? Very funny.

  4. This rings very true - I've experienced games with both the disconnectedness of a party disincentivised to do anything except follow what looks vaguely plot-shaped, and the "choice paralysis" of a party dropped into a sandbox with no clear goals to orient towards. I find the latter particularly difficult to GM for because, as a player, I'm quite happy to seek out interesting things to do off my own back, having been brought up on games that emphasised that self-motivated style, so it's difficult for me to conceptualise the problem as it occurs in my players. My current remedy is xp triggers that prompt players to seek out specific aspects designed to lead to adventure. Not sure yet if it will work though.