What do we really want from fictional worlds when we’re promised freedom?
Games are defined by how you interact, while fiction is defined by who it appeals to thematically. We should be able to look at the fictional worlds of games and their potential interactions for insight into what people would like to be able to experience and explore virtually. But that’s not entirely fair. In the case of video games, interactivity and immersion are restricted by hardware and software of the era, as well as the budgets and talent necessary to flesh out a fictional world, so they tend to be simplistic and “catchy” instead of dynamic and nuanced. Tabletop games (RPGs) are not restricted by hardware or software, but they lack the visual and audio components that do the heavy lifting of immersion, plus you’re obviously limited by the schedules of the actual humans sitting around the table with you, who all want the action to keep flowing for the sake of interest. You can interact in any way you want in a tabletop RPG, but you won’t see the results for yourself and there’s a human trying to do the world justice instead of a computer and programmers. Whether its technical or social, there are very clear limits on what we can do in games, no matter how open and limitless they’re marketed as being.
But we can look at their communities to see what people want. I’ve always been familiar with the video game community, reading the various magazines back when those were popular, then switching to websites and message boards once they showed up, but I never had the chance to get involved with tabletop role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons or Shadowrun. The business and distribution models of video games has evolved so dramatically over the decades that it’s defined much of gaming culture, but tabletop games have stayed practically the same. (There are online innovations like the “virtual tabletop” services which simulate a tabletop RPG experience online — as backwards as that seems — but physical hardcover rule books are still the primary way that RPGs distribute their new editions.) The point is, when I started delving into the tabletop RPG community I expected to see a much different scene than what I got.
Now, I’ll be the first to point out that people don’t often know what they want. Even the most vocal customers (and sometimes especially them!) tend to zoom in on minor details of usability or memorable gimmicks that create a sense of novelty, while neglecting deeper or broader issues that would improve their experience fundamentally. A community (or an aggregate of communities all related to the same subject) not only reflect the more vocal side of the hobbyists, but are restrictive themselves insofar as they tend to promote fast and provocative discussions instead of the slow burn of intellectual debate. But thanks to YouTube, Patreon, and iTunes, we can now measure the interests of a community in new ways: by clicks, views, and dollars that support things like advice, commentary, and discussion. Even if we can’t put our finger on what people really want, we can easily see what kind of discussion hobbyists think is worth subscribing to.
One of the most fascinating explorations of the design dilemma inherent in games and fiction is the TV show Westworld, which I consider to be a masterpiece of commentary on game design. If you ignore its central plot and the whole last half, it’s a perfect show. The premise entices viewers with the promise of a lawless world where every “fantasy” can be indulged, just like the theme park of Westworld itself, but quickly undermines its raw hedonistic appeal by pointing out how unsatisfying such fantasies can be. Not only do the real people involved know they’re simply being allowed to rebel — thus defeating the thrill of rebellion — but the actors involved are robots designed to give them what they want while only feigning resistance. This is exactly like a video game, or a tabletop RPG. Metal Gear Solid 2 played with this same conundrum in its meta-commentary. The “NPC” characters are all lifeless androids, merely infused with the simulacrum of fears and desires, but ultimately fake and disposable. You might be able to interact with them in a dozen ways, but there’s no potential for meaningful connections. There’s no long term.
And yet we love to interact with them. We love to play out scenarios, test out our hypotheses of what will happen if we do X, Y, or Z, and express ourselves through the ways we handle situations. It doesn’t matter whether the situation is real or not, because the important thing is that we’re expressing one facet of ourselves and seeing how it feels. Role playing is not about your fantasies as a normal person, but about becoming enmeshed in a world where your fantasies are different. Westworld explains this perfectly: it’s not about what you can do in the world that makes it a meaningful experience, but about who you become when you’re invested in that world. It’s about exploring yourself, not the fictional frontier.
Investment is a key word. I’ve explained before that the design of video games boils down to a sort of economic model in which we invest time and energy in exchange for features and interactivity, but this is not as true for tabletop RPGs. Theoretically, your character can attempt anything they they’re capable of (unlimited interactivity) as soon as they start playing, and the world is theoretically as dynamic as you can imagine. Sure, there’s still a limited amount of monsters, items, and spells included in the rule books, but that’s why they usually sell compendiums full of monsters or items to help out those lacking creativity who still want to expand the fictional worlds. When I thought about the nature of a tabletop RPG, I expected the community to be demanding more rules, more simulations, and more books full of “content” for Dungeon Masters to implement. There was some of that, but one running theme I couldn’t help noticing all over the place was a desire for scenarios that tested a player’s comfort zone. Controversy. Killing and hoarding treasure gets old fast, just like in Westworld. What people really want is a chance to explore decisions that aren’t as cut and dry as beating up a monster.
They say lucid dreaming is how our brains force us to interact with situations we know we may not be prepared for. That’s why they start vaguely, without context, and then thrust us into a circumstance where we feel like we have to deal with a particular problem or question, only to end abruptly without resolution. We wake up stuck with a jumble of feelings we’ve never felt before, replaying the moment of truth again and again as if to ask why we had the thoughts we did. It’s not that we “dreamed of” that particular situation as a fantasy, but rather, our subconscious brain was worried about it, so it ran a simulation to find out how we’d react if we were truly in it. That’s why the dreams are often controversial, provoking us to explore a side of ourselves that we don’t normally have to confront. Sex, rage, morbidity, uncertainty, and so on.
Games, and fiction in general, is almost universally centered around controversial themes. We like to witness other people handling situations of life and death, drama, heartache, and so on; or we watch “reality TV” and imagine how we’d handle the stupid crap idiots get themselves involved in, even if we know that the “reality” part is just worst acting and writing. That’s not the point. It’s all fake, and it always will be unless we’re personally involved. That’s why gossip never goes away, and social media is full of people looking for other people “failing”. We live in a polite society and entertainment provides us with a vicarious experience. If we lived in a war-torn or oppressive civilization we’d have little appetite for watching meaningless fiction or petty drama. Our brains are designed to seek out challenging situations, especially when they pose no risk to us.
One of the biggest themes of all “High Fantasy” is racism. Orcs, Elves, and Dwarves have always been depicted in ways that make them analogous to real-world cultures, making them controversial. When we invest in a fictional game world it’s because we want to explore their problems — which may happen to be relatable to our own, although we don’t draw any connection consciously. The racism of a fantasy world is harmless, which is why it’s so fun. Different franchises depict them in different ways, but they always end up reminiscent of somebody’s ancestors. Our Dwarf character can spout a racist diatribe about Elves being arrogant, superficial, pretentious so-and-so’s… and we haven’t offended anybody, even if there’s an Elf character at the table being played by a different player. In fact, it’s guaranteed to be enjoyable by everyone. I’ve noticed an extreme predilection towards fantasy racism in the tabletop RPG community, to the point where I’d call it one of the pillars of fantasy. This is among the most liberal, progressive beta-males and women you could find. One of the most popular shows on TV is Game of Thrones, which features some of the most brutal commentaries on the nature of power — military, political, sexual, cultural — you’ll ever find, and again it includes many real-world analogies. The show is practically #1 among liberals. Nobody hates these themes and these explorations of controversial “truths” as long as they don’t relate to the real world we have to live in.
Those who go completely off the chart with original designs end up proving the theory even better: just look at Numenera, the brilliant science fiction RPG world that has its own unique races and cultures, not bearing any obvious analogy to real-world or traditional fantasy races. Nobody cares about it. It’s thoughtful, vibrant, and has an abundance of explanations for lore-geeks to obsess about, but the fiction of the world is one of the biggest barriers to entry for new players who want to try the system. We don’t want original worlds. We don’t want unique alien races that bear no resemblance to humanity’s dark corners. We want classic Star Trek with its blatant social commentary, providing just enough plausible deniability for us to relax while we talk about how we feel about “Klingons”, “Freegans”, or “Vulcans”. Are we racist because we like to have opinions on fictional races with real-life counterparts? Maybe, probably, but that’s not the point. The point is that we can explore the ambiguities and feelings of various themes safely, just like in the lucid dream. Society doesn’t allow us to explore these thoughts, so we do it in fiction.
Compare the numbness towards Numenera with the zeal for Warhammer 40,000, which has the most rabidly devoted community I’ve ever seen. What’s the central appeal of their universe? The Imperium of Man, which clings to survival in a hellish galaxy through extreme xenophobia (literally killing any aliens with extreme prejudice, even when they’re occasionally peaceful) and the purging of “heretics” — those who lack devotion to the God-Emperor. They are called Catholic Space Nazis by fans, whose main source of entertainment seems to be arguing over how the characters of that world should or would handle the controversial questions of the era. There’s a new edition of Warhammer 40K being released soon, and fans are already frothing in anticipation at how Games Workshop will handle the progression of the story and its iconic leaders, who do actually have strong disagreements within the narrow spectrum of the Imperium. This is a hobby where people easily spend hundreds of dollars and just as many hours to collect, assemble, and paint their own custom miniatures in painstaking detail. Each unit has lore, and each faction has even more. All of the racist, sexist, bigoted, evil, proud, unapologetic factions of the Warhammer universe are immensely fun to roleplay and to watch other people roleplay; a proper tabletop RPG created in the 1980’s has allowed players to take it to the next level as well. Investment in every sense of the word. Controversy in every sense of the word. No harm done, no feelings hurt. Jokes about comparisons to real life are welcome, but they’re mostly to ward off the oversensitive types.
Walk in These Shoes
Whether it’s in generic fantasy like Dungeons & Dragons — based on stealing from every mythology abundantly, just like Tolkien’s was — or the strictly defined fiction of Warhammer, I’ve noticed a special attachment towards questions of morality and how to solve problems. In D&D there’s the notorious “alignment” system, which labels every character as some combination of Lawful, Chaotic, Good, Evil, or Neutral in between them. Many players agree that the alignment system is outdated and unhelpful for resolving conflicts in the game, and yet its one of the most popular topics for exploration, whether in the message boards, YouTube videos, or actual RPG campaigns. “How would somebody with Lawful Neutral handle this situation?” or “How would somebody with Chaotic Good handle this situation?” are explored endlessly. People love to disagree and bicker about it. At first I thought it was a problem of design — generating that much debate couldn’t be a good thing, and the alignment system should be officially eradicated — but then I realized it was probably the strongest glue holding their lousy systems together. As long as a character has an alignment, they have an interesting moral choice to make at every turn, no matter how boring and generic that system may be. Kobolds have raided a village and the locals are considering sacrificing some of their people as offerings to make the violence stop? Check your alignment to think about how your character would see the situation. Perhaps you’re an obvious protector of the innocent, but perhaps you’re a conniving opportunist who can take advantage of all sides with the right kind of manipulation. The alignment pushes you to explore feelings and decisions you wouldn’t otherwise consider.
In Warhammer 40,000, your solutions are always set in stone because the only way to interact with the universe is through battle, but there’s still plenty of room for asking questions. The characters and leaders you can buy and deploy in the battlefield have detailed backstories that don’t change their objective — killing — but do cause the lore-geeks to consider what they may be feeling, and where their particular division is headed in the following millennia. As you familiarize yourself with the hundreds of disparate clans, you can’t help but recognize the wisdom of Catholic Space Nazis as a necessary evil if humanity is supposed to survive. Oppressive? Yes. Unfair? Yes. Backwards, ignorant, paranoid and unhealthy? Yes. But the particular fiction of that universe justifies all of it and makes it feel like an inevitable wisdom earned through untold suffering. I’ve talked with people who disliked Warhammer’s dark themes about the story behind the designs, and generally found that people were morbidly intrigued by such a controversial setting. Almost like they’d want to walk in those shoes and see for themselves which Chapter of the Imperium they’d become loyal to.
In the end, I feel like there is no way to fulfill this kind of fantasy. Westworld captured all of the design challenges, but the show itself couldn’t build a satisfying climax. The same goes for tabletop RPG’s, which notoriously never “end” and always promise “freedom” but end up locking player characters into a linear stories (“campaigns”) for the sake of trying to create a payoff at the end of the struggles. But there’s no payoff to be had. Our fictional characters don’t live happily ever. We’d have to simulate that for them, but that’s not why we play. We play to struggle with decisions, not obtain happiness. We play to experience drama and perhaps fail in the process. We play to feel loss, urgency, ambiguity, and controversy as we suspend our disbelief and enter a realm of fictional crisis. Just like the lucid dream, we’re thrust into the middle of a problem and need to experience the dilemma. The resolution is not important. We need to walk in those shoes, not reach a destination.