For Startersby Aeon
May 30, 2002
For Startersby Aeon
May 30, 2002
"See, you're assuming I won't shoot your sorry ass,
To take something for granted means one of two things: to value too lightly, or to assume that something is expected in a certain situation, generally without thinking too much about it. The phrase "for granted" is typically prefixed by "don't take (something)," where something is the variable of the moment, and the entire phrase is intended as a warning that what you're taking as true and expected might not be either of those things for very long. "Don't take me for granted" might imply that I'm not going to be around in your life for very much longer. "Don't take your eyesight for granted" might mean that you should treasure the ability to see, because one day you might lose it. We take for granted that a website will be viewable in our web browser of choice, and are shocked and a bit dismayed when it is not. We take for granted that electricity and phone service will remain uninterrupted, and we are inconvenienced when a squirrel chews through a line somewhere, and we're cut off. In such cases, we are wrong to take these things "for granted," because we know from experience that they're anything but.
In many cases, however, taking things for granted is perfectly justifiable, because those things that we assume to be true and expected are, in fact, just as we expect them to be. If I take your readership for granted, thus, it means that I am assuming that you're going to read this column no matter what I do. In this case, my assumption about you as a reader is certainly correct; after all, you're reading this sentence, aren't you? This sort of tautology (if I assume you're a reader, and you read that sentence, I'm therefore proven correct) isn't something people generally think about. We take it for granted that there will be air to breathe, that gravity will continue to function, that the bonds that hold atoms and molecules together will continue holding, and so on. And there's nothing wrong with taking any of this for granted; if we're right in our assumptions about the laws of nature and the behavior of the universe, then we don't need to worry, because we're right. And if we're wrong, and those things we've placed too little value on are proven incorrect, then we won't be here to worry about them; should gravity, our nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere, or atomic bonds suddenly be proven false or nonexistent, we won't really be around to kick ourselves, will we? Thus, the things we take for granted in those cases must be true (at least in some form), because (spiritual and metaphysical possibilities aside) we can't exist without them being true.
Both situations hold true for many of our most deeply-held assumptions about the world of Role-Playing Games.
Assume is an important word for our purposes here. You've all heard the phrase, "When you assume, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me." You've probably heard it so often that it's become cliché (another word we'll be seeing a lot of in the months to come). You take it for granted that when someone starts off lecturing about assuming, they're going to hit you with the "ass out of you and me" line. And then someone like Samuel L. Jackson's character in The Long Kiss Goodnight comes along and throws things out of whack. This is actually fairly appropriate, since "assume," like many words in the English language, has many shades of meaning, some of which are nearly contradictory. Assume can mean "to take in or upon, or to take control of," as in "to assume control," or "to assume responsibility." But on the flipside, assume also means "to pretend or feign," as well as the definition we've been discussing above, "to take for granted." If I assume a disguise, or assume an air of confidence, then I'm concealing the truth behind a layer of shadow, and if you assume that my confidence is true, then you're being misled. I can assume responsibility (and thus be responsible) or I can assume responsibility (and pretend to be responsible). Only I know the truth of the situation. Or do I? Am I only assuming that I know? I can't even assume that I'm correct about assuming.
In much the same way, we can't even take the phrase "for granted" for granted. Gamers are probably familiar with the plight of the gamer who, upon finding a Djinn that would grant him a wish, said "Raise my ability scores," to which the Djinn replied with a smile, "OK, I'll raze your ability scores. Your wish is granted." To "grant a wish" is to make it come true, much like to "grant a favor" or to "grant a scholarship" to someone means to give them a right, privilege or favor. If I "grant that you are correct," I concede the truth of your correctness, but if I take for granted that you're correct, and you're not, then I've just gotten "mption" all over myself. Grant, then, depending on usage, can mean everything from making a desired wish come true, to incorrectly assuming that something is true. I take it for granted that the Djinn will grant my wish. Is it time to boast, or time to roll up a new character?
So if we can't take things for granted, but we have to anyway, and we can't assume, but we must, then where the heck does that leave us? And what, exactly, does this have to do with Role-Playing, outside of malicious Djinni?
The things we all take for granted about RPGs are myriad, and fall into a variety of categories ranging from perfectly justifiable, to completely off base, to so far buried in the subconscious that we don't even give them a moment's thought. For the most part, it is these latter that will be the focus of this series, but as we move along we'll dip our toes into the first two pools as well. What I'll do my best to avoid are clichés, which have no part here. Role-Playing and Gaming clichés are fairly well known, in that even if you've not heard about them, you'd recognize one when you saw one. The old, bearded wizard in the _ _ _ _ _ _ hat. The sturdy knight in _ _ _ _ _ _ _ armor. The beautiful _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ in the tower, guarded by the fire-breathing _ _ _ _ _ _. If you mentally filled in the preceding blanks with, respectively, "pointy," "shining," "princess" and "dragon," then you know cliché when you see it. It surrounds us and binds us, much like The Force, except with fewer lightsabers.
No, even assumptions and clichés can't exist without the things we take for granted about gaming, the core elements that are so often overlooked, and only, barely, noticed by their absence, and then only for a brief moment before, like a comet, they're gone into the void once again. We have no time for weak little things like clichés here. We've got bigger fish to fry.
But enough being cryptic; what the heck am I talking about? Like any witch's cauldron, this series will be chock full of small little bits, each by itself seeming unimportant. But upon closer inspection, I think we'll see exactly how important are some of the things we all take for granted. Things like language, written and spoken, as well as symbols and numbers. Time, and the concept of beginning, middle and end. Mortality, even (and most notably) among supposed immortals. Direction and place, and the laws that make any universe possible. We'll take a look at why all fantasy races speak a "Common" tongue, why all fantasy worlds have an up and a down and an in-between, and why you'll find men, women and children who look just like you everywhere you look. And of course, we'll look at the exceptions to those rules, exploring who broke them, why, and what they teach us about the things we typically take for granted.
More so than with my last column (Archetypology), I'd like this column to be fairly interactive, and so I not only invite but expect and demand that my readers will also choose to be writers, playing a role in the construction of this column as it evolves over the months to come. It's a bold assumption on my part that my readers will take that extra step, but if there's ever been a place to assume, it's right here, right now.
Because you know what they say when you go assuming things--you make an "ass" out of "u" and "ming."
Sorry about that, Ming.