Tuesday, 20 September 2022

The Productive Tension Between 'Phallic Desire' and 'Messy Soup'

Randomly clicking on other people's blogroll links led me to two interestingly orthogonal posts - Chris McDowall on a 'Universal Hex Profile' and Zedeck Siew on D&D and taxonomy. The former could almost be a (unintentional) critique of the latter. On the one hand, we have a neat proposal to classify hexes on a hex map by using a system of four-letter codes; on the other, we have a bundle of accusations levelled against the 'phallic desire' of nerds and their obsession with taxonomy, and against fantasy worldbuilding in general and its reification of 'colonial epistemology' (which I think just means having clear and accurate bird's eye view maps). 

Of course (and, to be fair to Mr Siew, it's important to be clear that he's only reporting the views of others), the idea that the mere act of categorising and classifying things (or imposing 'concrete ontologies' on the world, if you prefer) represents 'phallic desire' or 'colonial epistemology' is complete bunkum: those activities are simply necessary elements of any project of organising pretty much anything, in whatever context. That colonial administrators found it necessary to categorise things and attempt to impose order in the territories they administered through clear maps is simply because they were human beings trying to get things done, regardless of what we might think of the motivations or consequences - and such exercises have of course been a feature of human political organisation since ancient Sumer or before (just as they are also a feature of plumbing, school teaching, medicine, football, staging plays, or any other activity of any complexity in which human beings might engage). 

As Siew himself makes plain, it is necessary for D&D to have fixed categories and taxonomies because the alternative - 'you just gotta deal with things being a messy soup, people are not lines of code, you gotta pay attention to everything in its own context' - poses too many logistical problems for anybody attempting to actually run a game. A DM needs to be able to rely on the fact that there is such a category of monster as [goblin] and it has [x characteristics], that there are such hexes as [mountainous] and they have [y characteristics], and so on, because the alternative would require too much time and mental bandwidth. This isn't 'phallic desire'; it's an ineluctable feature of trying to run a campaign of a role playing game. Denying that really just smacks of dilettantism. 

At the same time, it would be evident to anybody who had ever spent time with human beings that when they really enjoy a particular pastime and spend a lot of time thinking about it, they come to be able to identity wafer-thin distinctions within it through excessive familiarity. This is not a feature of nerds who like D&D; it's a feature of people who like things. Any hobby has this aspect; just listen to football fans discussing the difference between a 'false 9' and a 'trequartista' or jazz fans quibbling over the difference between hard-bop and post-bop. The idea that role playing games would or should be any different is plainly misguided.

But, of course, that is only half the story. Anyone would agree that there is something deeply banalifying about the nerdish tendencies to insist on conformity with specified characteristics and split hairs between taxons of every this, that and other thing. Having every goblin be just another goblin makes life easy, but is also deeply boring; reducing the dragon to a series of mere stats and numerical abilities is to deprive it of its mythic, symbolic power; having the thoul be the result of cross-breeding between monsters is way less interesting than attributing its existence to magic; and so on. A little bit of 'messiness' is necessary to prevent staleness and to imbue the game with something grander and more meaningful than an exercise in high fantasy pastiche. 

I wrote a post on that subject almost 15 years ago, and have returned to it on numerous occasions (see for example herehere and here); I think ultimately I have reached the conclusion that there is a tension between the so-called 'phallic desire' of the nerd and the 'messy soup' of reality, but that it is, in the end, a productive one. The creative D&D DM needs the latter so as to keep things fresh, but also needs the former to keep him grounded and prevent his engagement in fruitless flights of fancy - he needs to be inventive, but never so inventive that he loses sight of the fact that D&D is a game and not novel-writing, speculative anthropology or historical research. 

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, rather than stultifying creativity, the imperatives of 'phallic desire' spur it on, because the need for things to be able to make sense at the table - to be, let's use that word, gameable - acts as a kind of crucible or sieve for all of our frivolous imaginative antics, sifting out the good ideas and forcing the abandonment of bad ones. This in turn creates an iterative, almost Darwinian feedback process whereby the ideas are refined and shaped through reflection and repetition. What we end up with is the best of both worlds - the right combination of what works logistically, leavened by fresh flavours. 

23 comments:

  1. I'd go even farther to say that "doing things" and "knowing stuff" smacks of white supremacy and dangerous extremism!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You say that ironically, for comedic purpose (because being a shit stirring troll is your gimmick) but that has actually been a growing sentiment and not from the direction you expect.

      Delete
  2. This is a great take on this issue. D&D absolutely thrives on this tension between the reductive, obsessive, literal-minded, analytical, taxonomical imperative of the "nerd" or "fan" (in its worst form: "What is the name of the walrus-face guy from the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars, and why hasn't a movie been made about his backstory yet?") and the mystifying, vague, impressionistic, pretentious woo-woo of the "dilettante" (in its worst form: story gamers).

    (That's a joke, I love story games -- and actually, there's an argument that story games and the OSR both share aspects of the dilettante approach relative to the obsessive taxonomy of the 90s-era splatbook explosion).

    There's a book to be written about the rapid expansion of the meanings of various pejoratives in the internet age, in particular "nerd" and "bro". A "nerd", as of 1980 or so (Revenge of the Nerds was released in 1984), referred to an obsessive young man whose object of obsession, importantly, was associated with low status. By 2020, after 25 years of comic book superheroes and dragons and wizards dominating pop cultural entertainment, I had heard people describe themselves as "baseball nerds", "finance nerds", and (I kid you not) "fashion nerds". In other words, once it became fashionable to "be a nerd", the low-status qualifier was removed, and anyone who liked [thing] became a "[thing] nerd".

    The transformation of "bro" has been treated by Freddie de Boer, among others, but in short: it used to mean "misogynistic, homophobic, reactionary meathead fratboy jock", and it now means "man I don't like". More specifically, it has almost taken over the old meaning of "nerd" ironically enough: it is most often used these days in association with an object of obsession that is deemed to be low status, or at least something associated with the wrong political ideology: hence "tech bros" (engineers), "lit bros" (anyone who reads a book I don't like), "Bernie bros" (socialists), and so on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting - I'm kind of out of the loop with internet slang but that makes sense to me. When I was a kid growing up in England we didn't use the word "nerd"... I think what we would have said was "swot".

      I get what you mean about story games. A lot of the dilettantism comes from that wing of the hobby, because many of those games are actually possible to play (generally for just a session or two) in a very "vague, impressionistic, pretentious woo woo" way. The problem is you can't run a campaign of D&D that way.

      Delete
  3. A bit tangential to this is what the Grognardia blog called "Gygaxian Naturalism" or generally the tendency in D&D (most notably in the old "Ecology of X" articles) to turn folkloric creatures into strange animals.

    This sort of thing goes way back in D&D to its strong Sword & Planet influences so that a lot of D&D monsters would work fine as Sword & Planet aliens, but I think there's something lost when in a lot of games orcs are more grumpy neanderthals than corrupted beings of darkness, a pegasus is just a very special horse instead of a magical being that sprang from the severed neck of a gorgon, etc. etc. etc.


    That's one reason I'm interested in your Northumbria project as it appears like one of its focuses is dragging D&D more to the folkloric side of the equation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I did think about mentioning Gygaxian Naturalism but didn't get round to it.

      Definitely the Northumberland project has that aim in mind! I think it has achieved it, at leats as far as I can do so....

      Delete
  4. There is something to the fact that cataloging and quantifying robs the mythic of some of its power (paging M. John Harrison). I tend to play pretty loose because of this (and general lack of time and interest to read through said catalogs) but I agree on the metric of "does it work at the table" as being the the best way to approach any game design or worldbuilding. Followed by what is entertaining for the GM to work on of course..

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, and it's important to remember that novels and games are different things. What works for M John Harrison in a fantasy novel is not what will work for D&D, and vice versa.

      Delete
    2. To me there's no better illustration of this principle than the tragicomic unicorn hunt carried out by the sons of Morgause in T.H. White's The Once and Future King. By the time the "fans" are done with a work of fantasy, it's usually been turned from a magical and elusive thing of beauty into a dismembered, tattered, bloody nub of bone and gristle.

      Delete
    3. Good shout. It's been ages since I've read that - must re-read.

      Delete
  5. I don't know, I feel that a lot of RPGs and Nerd culture in general is enamored with shallow, simplified versions of logical positivism and viewing things as God as the watchmaker. It doesn't just come to games and fantasy worlds, but also the cultures grown around the "How to write ___" writing theories (theories that come from modern traditions of storytelling that don't realizes older or non-western forms of storytelling). The biggest annoyances I have with this tendency is the narrowed mindedness and inability to acknowledge and see that there are other ways of looking at and doing things and the other annoyance is shoehorning this logical positivist viewpoint in eras that would have never thought in logical positivism terms. If D&D is about pseudo-medieval European peoples interacting with fantastical things, why is the situation presented in a Secular sciencism (scienitfic-like, not actually scientific) way?
    Of course, in some ways, any and all worldviews have done this, in Beowulf one can argue that Grendel turns from a Jötunn (Native Norse belief) to a descendant of Cain (Christian worldview) in the text.
    I hope my thoughts were expressed clearly enough, I am writing this very late.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very clear, and I basically agree with your annoyance - but I also think it is inescapable in the sphere of game playing (let's be pretentious and call it 'the ludic domain'), because of the need to have a functional game. It's not so much imposing a framework of logical positivism - it's just needing to have a fairly clear structure of rules and assumptions which can be predictably applied to figure out what happens in any given moment.

      Delete
    2. What you are saying is true.
      Though I do think that Nerd culture tends to go to the extreme end in a very modern Western worldview (which is not a bad worldview, nor is logical positivism, which I felt like I was bashing, I wasn't, I was bashing the simplified parody of it in Nerds, but the inability for Nerds to see outside of the modern Western worldview is a problem for them).
      To me, stats blocks don't inherently kill the magic and mystery of a monster. It is the way some monster manuals go about detailing monsters. Most D&D games, if you don't say the name of the creature, even a pretty numerous creature such as a goblin, the creature can maintain its mythic power by how the players perceive it.
      Monsters are also kind of like mountain lions, we have all this information about mountain lions, you can read books about their behavior, their biology, but that doesn't take way the feeling you would feel if you glimpsed one camping.
      I do agree with your assessment of a functional game, that the tension between messy soup and phallic love is a productive one. It is almost exactly the parable of Michael Moorcock's mythos, you both need Order and Chaos. If a game is all Order, then it is rather boring. If a game is all Chaos, then you don't have a game at all.

      Delete
    3. Yes, and indeed I would argue it's a bit like the dynamic between the political right and left. Human societies actually need both: people who are very into conscientiousness, responsibility and orderliness and people who are creative, empathetic and compassionate.

      Delete
  6. Possibly an aside, but this reminds me of the "Flyweight" design pattern in software engineering. Put down a shared skeleton (A Goblin has these basic stats and features), specific examples can have things added on top (This Goblin has extra HD and spells, this goblin is Fat and eats gold, etc.)

    Another thought; having a clear understanding of what you're referencing and presenting at the table is important, but there's no need for a monster or a group of monsters in one area to be anything like a similarly named monster or group of monsters in another area. If they're both "goblins" but one is a kind of bizarre fungus creature and the other is an ugly faerie hominid species, they can be internally referenced as goblins (fungal) and goblins (faerie), or even Gobilns (west coast) and Goblins (east coast).

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thought-provoking article and insightful comments, as always. I think you're exactly right, that the "ludic" imperative stimulates creativity as it restricts, much as the sonnet form or the practical restrictions of staging a play directs and stimulates creativity. There are story games and "unperformable" plays that deliberately play with the boundary, and then there's dross that lacks understanding of the rules being broken.

    I think you can (usually) tell the difference between story games that have been created by experienced gamers vs. dilettantes.

    Provided that the creator, DM and players all understand that the competing forces war in service of a higher gods, "fun" and "challenge", it's all good.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've now read three and a half blog posts about it, and I have yet to understand what this "phallic desire" has to do with anything phallic. It seems to me just a buzzword coined by some post-Freudian weirdo with a pathological obsession for sex and sexism.

    But please, don't educate me, Marcia's articles left me nauseated enough already.

    Rant over. Great post, this, by the way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As a feminist, I think it's pretty laughable.

      Delete
    2. Marcia's political pronouncements tend to be extremely cringe, even though I share probably 95% of her sentiments. Her dedication to unpacking the technical implications of old-school D&D, however, is mind-blowing (if a little boring sometimes)

      Delete
    3. Does unpacking the technical implications of old school D&D qualify as 'phallic desire'? This is a genuine question - not trying to be facetious. (Well, not entirely.)

      Delete
    4. Ha, that is a very good point (and I totally get you - made in entirely the sort of "joking not joking" manner that I like to frame questions about potential arseholes.

      Delete
  9. Not even bothered to read the post (yet), just came here to say that things started to go downhill around here once we decided that Things exist.

    (I've been stuck between vol. 1 and vol. 2 of the Iain McGilchrist for about 6 months now, and as a result everything EVERYthing [but obvs not every Thing] is appearing through its lens)

    ReplyDelete