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The Fine Art of Role-Playing

Part 4: ...But with Innovations!

by Jonathan Walton
Feb 20,2004


The Fine Art of Roleplaying
A Column by Jonathan Walton

Part 4: ...But with Innovations!

To start with the reactions to my last article... It just warms my heart when I can write something that leads to as diverse reactions as these:

Mmm... the smell of indignation in the morning ;) Seriously, though, I think the vast majority of those responding to Girls Don't Roleplay were very reasonable and insightful. I certainly learned a great deal and gained new insights into facets of the issue that I'd never really considered before. If you're at all interested in the current gender-imbalance and institutionalized sexism in roleplaying, you might want to browse the threads at the bottom of this page (which go on for several pages now) to see what people said in response. The perspectives and reactions are rather divergant in some places, but there are many voices with worthwhile and discerning things to say.

On to Brecht

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is a somewhat controversial figure in the history of theater and aesthetic theory. While there is no question that the man was unquestionably helpful in building the foundation for modern and post-modern theater, whether he was truly a visionary or simply the public voice for emerging artistic trends is not entirely clear. Most likely, it's a mixture of the two. Brecht is generally credited with the innovation of "theater as social criticism," but even in the field of opera theater (where he initially won fame and infamy for The Three Penny Opera and Rise & Fall of the City of Mahagonny, respectively), he was preceeded by such notable social critics as Offenbach (Orpheus in the Underworld) and Gilbert & Sullivan. However, before Brecht, socially critical theater was typically limited to the "safe" genres of comedy and satire, which were easily stomached thanks to their wit and humor. Theater was something that could comment on issues, but not actively work to promote true reflection and social change. Brecht, of course, wasn't satisfied with that.

To aid us in examining the ideas he put forth, I've chosen excerpts from an article written fairly early in Brecht's career, right after the disasterous response to his second and last collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill, Rise & Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930). If you're familiar with The Doors or David Bowie's cover of Alabama Song, you may already know something about this work. As a contemporary commentator writes:

So, to put the article in proper context, Brecht is writing in response to the strong vehemance that many have expressed to his new theatrical "innovations." Many questioned whether his work was even an opera at all. In an attempt to counter objections and explain his motivations and choices, Brecht described his proposed reforms, his "innovations," as moving from traditional theater forms, which he called Dramatic, towards a new ideal that he dubbed Epic Theater.

Look at this list with me and we'll see if we can figure out what Brecht is suggesting and what he's reacting too. Scanning Brecht's description of the qualities of Dramatic Theater, one gets the sense that he's arguing against passive enjoyment and appreciation by the audience, which he later describes as "hedonism" in later sections of this article. Overall, he seems to be suggesting that the audience is too comfortable for its own good. They are simply carried along on an imaginary journey without them having to really do anything. Even their feelings, he writes, are "preserved," perhaps meaning that they come out of the experience feeling the same, or better, about themselves and the world. They have not been challenged at all, to think hard about real issues or to reexamine some of their existing beliefs.

Later in the article, when Brecht goes into a tirade about how much he hates Wagner, you begin to get a sense of exactly what he despises. Richard Wagner was famous for creating 5-hour epics that were among the first to be performed in a darkened theater, such that the audience's attention was forcibly focused on the stage. Under Wagner's influence, opera houses began to move away from being social occasions in which people chatted and wandered about during the performance (which had previously been the practice). The piece of theater being presented became the focal point. Wagner even coined a term, Gesamtkunstwerk, that described the fusion of all art forms (music, singing, lighting, set, costumes, makeup, etc.) into a unified whole, one whose purpose was to transport the audience to another place and time, to draw them into the epic.

Brecht sees this as being very seductive and dangerous. This kind of artwork, he claims, fuses the spectator in with the other components until they are passive and unable to separate their own feelings from that of the work being presented. Art then becomes a kind of indoctrination, preached to a group of people whose defenses have been brought down by their attempt to open themselves up to the appreciation of the work. To Brecht, art should not be experiential, it should not, to draw a parallel, be immersive in nature. It should distance the audience, cause them to step back, take a broader view, and examine what's really going on, both inside and outside the piece. It should not lull them to sleep but wake them up and promote thought and change.

The Possibility for "Epic" Roleplaying

Would it be possible to have "epic" roleplaying? There are definitely some obstacles here that shouldn't be overlooked. First of all, roleplaying sessions don't typically have audiences beyond the players themselves. Roleplaying is a unique medium because it's a performance-based artform, but the performance is done for the performers own benefit. Is it possible to have non-immersive roleplaying that allows performers to take the larger picture while still taking on roles in the narrative/montage? Is it possible for the players to be challenged by a piece if they're not deeply connected to it through immersion? Would they simply deflect the challenge, instead of confronting it?

I chose the quotes above for several reasons. First of all, they all advocate what seems to be a high level of immersion (immersion, in this case, being defined as a player identifying very strongly with their character, letting themselves sink deep into the role), but still seem concerned with creating situations that are emotionally unpleasant and challenging. This is one possible solution, but not the only one. John Tynes headed in a completely different direction with his game Powerkill, in which players are asked, after a standard roleplaying session, to reflect on the events from a removed position and consider the parts of roleplaying that would be rather disturbing if they happened in real life. Tynes' game depends on the violence that is inherent in most mainstream roleplaying to provide content for the post-game discussion.

If you'll notice, one thing that both these approaches have in common is the intent of making things "real." It seems like players can't be effectively challenged and confronted by some issues if they realize full well that they are in a fantasy world with no real consequences or greater ramifications. The technique of deep immersion, especially in a LARP (which is what all the games described in the quote above are), serves to make things more real, as the character is drawn closer and closer to the player, like a second skin. It's still a mask, but a thin one that doesn't fully insulate you from the imaginary events of the game. And Tynes removal technique, though moving in the opposite direction, disguises itself as something "real," a discerning reflection on the events of the game, when really it's just another layer of metagame.

Then again, this "realness" may not necessarily require any particular among of immersion or distance from characters and events. I still remember a memorable game from my Palladium fanboy days (yes, I bypassed D&D and went straight to Rifts) when a near-Brechtian situation developed, by accident really. We had just begun a dark supers campaign that mixed elements of Heroes Unlimited with Nightbane, when one superstrong PC found himself at odds with a mind-controlled Captain Wonderful, his childhood hero and the man who inspired him to become a superhero. Wanting to stop Captain Wonderful, the PC punched him in the jaw, forgetting that Captain Wonderful was merely a costumed vigilante (like Batman) and not a superhuman. So, the PC ended up accidentally killing Captain Wonderful before the game really got started.

The amazing thing that occurred was this particular player's reaction. He had typically been a player who enjoyed having the story fed to him, giving input now and then, but mostly just enjoying the ride and passively enjoying the narrative in exactly the manner that Brecht warns against. But when Captain Wonderful died, this quickly changed. The player started realizing that he really did have power to affect game events, for good or ill, and that a PC wasn't necessarily meant to be manipulated like a character in a video game, doing anything that you might consider "cool," no matter what that was. And so, he started to view choices and problems in the game as if he were approaching real problems in the outside world. After all, what IS the best way to fight crime and prevent evil? Is violence really the answer? Unfortunately, the storyline only continued for another few sessions, but those concerns definitely carried over into later play.

So perhaps what "epic" roleplaying really requires is a sense that the events being portrayed have ramifications that go beyond the gaming table and an approach which continually challenges players with different aspects of these "real" issues, instead of just being passive entertainment. There are a few roleplaying groups that I've been in that have tried to promote this kind of play, though never in a very consistent fashion or in a way that was necessarily intentional.

To give another example, Michael (who's been making comments in the Fine Arts forum below) ran a very nice Vampire campaign, and he made the point of reminding the players, every so often, that vampires were more than superheroes with fangs; they were evil, inhuman, undead, bloodsucking bastards. In fact, all of White Wolf's games, from Vampire to Changeling, intentionally address real world problems in their premises, whether it's the question of what people do for power or how to prevent the magic of childhood from disappearing forever. In practice, however, these somewhat Brechtian themes can often be buried and prevented from being the challenging forces that they have the potential to be.

Is This Even Roleplaying? More Importantly, Is it Fun?

I am anticipating that there will be people who claim that all this reality gets in the way of having a fun game. After all, as everyone seems required to say, "Roleplaying is ultimately about having fun," and we sure as hell wouldn't want to do anything that wasn't fun. If the traditional purpose of roleplaying was escapism and pure entertainment (which is something I'd probably agree with), "epic" or Brechtian roleplaying seems to fly in the face of this. Why go to all this trouble to challenge the players and make them feel uncomfortable? If you do that, they aren't going to want to play with you anymore?

But that's silly. Do you play basketball to win? If you are challenged and lose horribly, get humiliated by the guys on the court, and are sent packing, are you going to choose not to come back? Maybe. But you could also use that as a motivation to rise to the occasion, becoming better, until you can send the other guys packing. If you're playing basketball to get better, and not just for pure enjoyment, defeats can tell you just as much as success. Additionally, many basketball players will tell you that getting your ass whupped can be as much fun as winning.

What does this metaphor mean? I'm suggesting that it's okay to whup other players asses, emotionally, challenging their conceptions and making them tired and drained by the end of the session. They might even thank you for it. This is, of course, not something that should be done lightly, expecting when the rest of the group isn't expecting it. If you're doing all the challenging while the rest of the players are in passive-enjoyment-mode, things will probably not work out okay. But if your group has a social contract that supports inter-player and inter-character conflict, it should definitely be doable.

In a recent thread on the Forge, several posters questioned the benefits of inter-character conflict, saying that they distracted from the cooperative spirit that was important for making roleplaying work, and generally wasn't as enjoyable as having the players and characters get along. I write this article assuming that most of you, like me, have had experiences where the characters' bickering and/or true antagonism provided a great deal of the game's enjoyment. However, due to this recent discussion, I now realize that's not necessarily true. If not, you're going to have to trust me that player and character antagonism can be the source a game's energy and drive. In fact, many games like Sorcerer and Universalis count on it.

There will inevitably be some of you who see roleplaying that addresses real issues to not sound very fun. Personally, I find it easier to become invested in a game that has some "substance," that addresses real world events and problems. That is the kind of experience that I find I enjoy quite often, while just-for-fun experiences can quickly become boring. For instance, I love Toon, but I couldn't play a Toon game every week. I'd go mad. But I realize that people have very different thresholds and can handle/enjoy different amounts of this stuff. My interest in "epic" roleplaying has definitely increased as I've gotten older. It was definitely there in my 16-year-old self, but once I passed 20, the desire for "roleplaying with substance" increased dramatically. If roleplaying is going to sustain my interest for the rest of my life, it can't just be disposable entertainment, like a good action movie.

Brecht is certainly right when he talks about Mahagonny being just as hedonistic and experience-based as any other opera. It's just a vastly different kind of experience and enjoyment then that which was traditionally offered. There is a real joy to being challenged and having your beliefs brought into question, if that's the kind of experience you're seeking. It's going through the Gauntlet and coming out the other side. It's throwing yourself into an ice-cold mountain lake. Uncomfortable, yes, but also hedonistic in its own way. After all, if people can enjoy THAT and if Aristotle can write an entire treatise on the aesthetic enjoyment of tragedy (which we may find time to discuss once I get Argonauts published), you should be able to hedonistically enjoy "epic" roleplaying.

From my experiences with the last article, I think I can safely assume that some people will feel threatened by what I am suggesting here. Brecht's audiences and critics felt threatened by his works, and he certainly intended that. He wished to revolutionize theater and use it as a method for creating social change. However, that's not what I'm suggesting here. I'm NOT suggesting that all roleplaying should be "epic" roleplaying. I'm suggesting that the community as a whole would benefit from there being SOME intentially "epic" roleplaying, which is quite a different thing entirely. I'm NOT suggesting that playing for pure enjoyment, what Brecht dubs "hedonism," is somehow less productive or less artistically valid.

In fact, even Brecht recognized that you can't be constantly challenging an audience, or they'll walk out, emotionally exhausted. In a game that had decided on an "epic" feel, there would have to be calmer sections where players could simply enjoy the narrative and nurse their emotional wounds. Continual conflict is not usually sustainable. Downtime would be especially critical, given the intense emotional and intellectual requirements of certain scenes and interactions. In the games that I've played in which did have Brechtian components, this kind of thing was usually done instinctively, with the GM backing off every now and then to allow the players to recover.

What's Next?

Well, this is the last article that I'm going to write completely independently, at least for a while. I'm taking a Private Reading in aesthetics called "Emerging Art Theory," in which I'm planning to read cutting-edge, brand-spanking-new aesthetic theory, discuss it with my professor, and then turn those discussions into more articles for this column. Hopefully, that should mean that this column will only get better, thanks to my professor providing her knowledgeable input and me having a chance to talk out my ideas with someone else.

Next time, we're going to look at the art theory of Joseph Margolis, prehaps the most prominent relativist aesthetician, who argues that artworks are not, in fact, physical artifacts and cannot be treated as such. This seems especially relevant to our discussion of roleplaying, since our artform leaves no physical record of the "art" that has taken place (though there are always exceptions). So, tune in in two weeks when we talk about roleplaying games as cultural artifacts.

See ya then.


In prepping for this article, I am heavily indebted to "Loki," who helpfully pointed out Greg Costikyan's Brechtian roleplaying game, Beastial Acts. While not a fully realized representation of Brecht's work and ideals, Greg does address many of the issues I've brought up here, though not in a way that would likely be sustainable in actual play. Definitely worth checking out, though, at least as an extreme example of challanging an audience or group of participants.

And, finally, thanks to all the people who've posted in the response forum. Your comments continue to influence me. Whether for good or ill, who can say? :)

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