Friday 3 November 2023

RPGs and Storytelling Against the Nihilism of the Digital

The eccentric poet and folklorist Robert Bly once wrote that a central feature of adulthood was '[being] able to organise the random emotions and events of [one's] life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story'.

I know what he meant. Little children experience events in a disconnected jumble. As we grow bigger, we learn to connect the things that happen to us from moment to moment. In adulthood, we can then piece them into something resembling a personal narrative. And if we attend carefully to what happens to us, we can envision our lives as an ongoing story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This allows us, in turn, to think about what we wish to do tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and in old age - and also to think about the legacy that we will leave behind. The result is a vision of one's life as having an overarching meaning, which, when reflected upon, can guide one's conduct. 

Reading novels I think helps to facilitate the development of this ability in a way that other storytelling media (so as films or TV series) do not, partly because it takes a comparatively long time to read one, and partly because of that strange alchemy that takes place in the brain when one is reading words and internalising them through imagined imagery. It is surprising to me that I have never heard or read anybody remark on the fact that reading a novel requires one to be able to maintain a connected narrative and a set of accompanying imagery in one's head despite the big gaps in time between reading one section and the next, and despite the fact that each section of the book may be being read in different surroundings and different circumstances. Currently reading A Soldier of the Great War, for example, I find myself reading 10 pages or so at night in bed, then another 20 pages or so on public transport on my way to work the next morning, then a few more pages in my office at lunch time, and so on. But what I am envisioning in my head when I picture what is happening retains its consistency, as does my knowledge of what is happening and the position the narrative is 'paused' at. This surely has some very significant effect, when repeated again and again down the years, on one's ability to think about life in terms of having a narrative rather than a meaningless series of (fortunate or unfortunate) events.

If this is true of novels, though, it is surely also true of RPGs. What happens in an RPG campaign in some ways can be thought of as what I earlier called a 'disconnected jumble' of events, which we then assemble into something resembling a collective story (the campaign) and individualised stories (for each PC). And, much as with a novel, what is interesting about this exercise is that it happens partly within our brains (as we picture in our minds what is happening from moment to moment) and is also characterised by gaps - in this case, between sessions - during which we have to hold what is going on in stasis in our minds so that we can reconnect it to the past and connect it to the future next time. It seems likely, in other words, that playing in a long-term campaign has the same effect on one's ability to make sense of the world in terms of narrative as does reading lots of novels. 

Thinking about RPGs in terms of self-help can be a bit sick-making, but I think it is important to emphasise (as I have tried to do from time to time on the blog) that there is something deeply counter-cultural about physical, pen and paper gaming. One of the problems that we face, living in a heavily digitised environment, is that the conditions confronting us are highly fragmenting of our consciousness - indeed in such a way as to hinder or even reverse the process by which we move from living in a 'disconnected jumble' of events to understanding our lives as having overarching narratives. Since an awareness that one's life is a story is one of the ways we derive meaning from it, and hence develop a properly adult orientation to the world, the result of this fragmentation of consciousness is ultimately a bleak and nihilistic, not to mention stunted and immature, way of approaching things. If playing RPG campaigns - meaning proper long-term ones, in which one regularly sits down with the same group of friends - can work to undermine the conditions which confront us, then that gives the hobby a pertinence beyond being simply a fun thing to do. And I think we can all agree that we should therefore do more of it - indeed as much as possible.

[Something odd happened to the previous version of this post, I think in connection to an internet outage. I have therefore reposted it.]


  1. A thoughtful piece. Great stuff. It does feel like tabletop RPGs are a kind of rediscovery of a mode of cooperative narrative-making that began in the ancestral environment. Maybe it's not so great a stretch to claim that humans and human society evolved to do this, and because of it.

    It's not that I'm less anxious about our digital future, per se. But this new era is only just dawning. It's hard to predict what comes next. We probably won't know for decades (centuries?) what these changes mean. Elements that we all assumed were more or less permanent fixtures of the new world, e.g. social media, are already in decline. And whence VR?

    One aspect of the internet's fundamental structure that I do worry about is the way that it collapses the user's sense of time (as much as place). An article written 20 years ago is often as accessible as one written yesterday, and on some sites (though not all, BBC used to be a good example of old article looks old) much older articles look the same, with the same modern ads, same current logo etc, as the latest articles.

    In the before time, you'd have to go to the library and even dig out microfiche to read an old article. Increasingly it feels like we live in a permanent present, where events of 15,10,5 years ago and now are filleted together, based on tags, not chronology. This, I think, fuels phenomena like cancelling a celeb for something they posted on Reddit as a teen, or for an old Youtube interview clip. Or even cancelling a long-dead author.

    This relates to your argument about the facility for narrative making; When you remove the 4th dimension, however, rather than noise, you just have grossly simple narratives. Instead of "he said offensive thing 10 years ago, apologised when a clip surfaced 4 years ago, and now chairs a charity" you have "he says offensive thing in this clip".

    Now, if the celeb was an 18th level Chronomancer, they could cast Major Paradox and attempt (with the DM's approval) to alter their own past, with a 50% chance of attracting the attention of a denizen of a Guardian of the Temporal Prime.

    1. Yes - and this causes people to lose patience with their fellow human beings. Nobody can pass unscathed through the crucible of having their every move scrutinised as though it were happening in the present - we all look like arseholes at best (myself included). This is big problem.

    2. Not only is there little appreciation of past or future -- a permanent present, as you say; a narrowing of fourth dimensional awareness -- but almost paradoxically there is no sense of past and future incorporated into an "objective" timespace within the present.

      I've always been attracted to large, complicated fictional worlds, settings with a range of factions and locations, and also a range of timeframes. Different temporal settings within a coherent universe, so that your appreciation of a certain location, nation, character, culture, etc., and of the overall "idea" of each is a matter of process, of pluralities; not only of narratives as chronologies but of a coherent memeplex that includes all points in a given narrative at once. It's not story as a case of 1, then 2, then 3, but of 1,2, and 3 existing simultaneously in awareness and appreciation. That, surely, is what is so rewarding about stories. It brings multiplicity into a singular experience, collapses all those perspectives down to a point that contains and transcends all?

      One of my favourite idle activities for personal entertainment is selecting songs to represent particular factions/nations/cultures in the various sci-fi/fantasy settings I follow; not representing them at any one point, but representing their entirety (lyrics that can be interpreted as multiple, equally pertinent references; individual events or characters reflected alongside "big picture" focus -- to capture them at multiple perspectives and focuses simultaneously, which is where the real meaning is found. Spontaneous order as a multiplier of meaning, not a reduction of it. The present is the past and the future equally; the loss in our culture isn't just the limiting focus on present over non-present, but the crippling of the present itself, so that it's hooked up to a monoperspective.

    3. One of the things that GRRM does well in the first couple of books in ASoIaF, and which is not often remarked on, is the way in which he depicts events as taking place against both a recent and a deep historical past that bears strongly on the present.

  2. @deranged, if I'm understanding correctly, I think I agree. We're losing the ability to think in terms of subjective chronologies (which is hard to start with). Touching on @noism's point, that makes empathy even more elusive. Much discourse on recent conflicts seems to treat a given conflict as though it can be understood simply by considering a snapshot of power relations in the immediate present.

    On GRRM's ASolaF, that's one of the aspects I remember being most impressed with. IIRC, the reader doesn't know what to make of the mythic stuff. Is any of it real, or is this just "low" historical fantasy? The wall was clearly build for a reason. The Watch exist for a reason. But the original reason is lost in the noise of more recent political concerns. That framing makes the characters' dismissal of the threat beyond the wall much more plausible.

    1. I mean, in contrast to something like LotR, where even the mythic past unambiguously "actually happened".

  3. Your post led me to this article, which you might appreciate, if you haven't already read it:

    "Just like dreams, fictions keep us from overfitting our model of the world. Since society specializes for efficiency and competency, we began to outsource the labor of the internal fabulist to an external one. Shamans, and then storytellers with their myths, and then poets, writers, directors—all external dream makers, producing superior artificial dreams. The result is that a human equipped with modern experiential technology (e.g., TV, novels), can gain the benefits of dreams even during the day."

    "In a world of infinite experience, it is the aesthete who is safest, not the ascetic. Abstinence will not work. The only cure for too much fiction is good fiction."