Stories That Are Also Stories

First, some apologetic housekeeping: I promised you all a review of The Dreams of Ruin, the apocalyptic high level OSR science-fantasy adventure supplement by my friend Geoff Grabowski, and I’ll have it soon (probably over the weekend). Between finals (yes, this old man is back in school), responsibilities as a youth baseball coach, and actual paying writing, I have been very behind on the blog. I’d have liked to make the review *this* post but truth be told this is one of my meandering thought posts, while the DoR review deserves much more thought. Thanks for your patience.

Mad Max: Fury Road is amazeballs. Go see it, immediately, even if Douchey McDoucherstein tells you not to because it might injure your manhood.  I won’t belabor either of those points — how awesome the film is, or how stupid Mens Rights Activists are — but instead want to touch on something that came up in internet forum discussion regarding the movie:

 

To keep a long story short, some folks were trying to square the precise timeline of the Mad Max films, from the original through The Road Warrior, Thunderdome and Fury Road. Two issues were giving certain forumites the fits: Tom Hardy’s relative youth compared to Mel Gibson in the role of Max, and the apparent deepening the chaos and tribalism of the milieu. In combination, these elements created an issue for some, namely that how can Max, who was a cop before the Fall, be so young in a world that has obviously been tribal long enough for the Warboys and Imperator Furiosa to grow up in Immortan Joe’s clutches? Some theories were tossed around, from Max’s home actually existing after the Fall but in a state of relative order at the time of Mad Max, too Max having been mutated by radiation to be immortal. There is even a fan theory floating around suggesting that max is in fact… well, I’ll let you go check it out if you want. it’s interesting and plausible, but not especially likely, I don’t think. Note: it’s also spoilery.

 

I prefer a different theory, that I consider to be both elegant and have big implications not just for Mad Max but a number of other franchises as well:

 

Max is, in essence, an Arthurian Myth, a composite hero from the “dark ages” immediately following the Fall. The films do not recount events that actually occurred in the setting, but rather they represent myth told around the campfires by the elders of the tribes coming out of that Dark Age into a new era of civilization. The films are narrated by survivors who witnessed the events as children or youths, likely the oldest members of the tribe. Who would be left alive to counter the claim that they were there? Maybe they were, but maybe the “true” events happened generation before even those elders. Like Arthurian myths, the stories told in the Mad Max films follow a distinct pattern: Max stumbles into the plight of the people; he is resistant to help but eventually concedes; he fights and not only helps defeat the bad guys but delivers the tribe to safety; he rides off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Tales like these would serve as the foundational stories of the tribes as they emerged out of the darkness and made the transition to actual civilization. And if the Mad Max films serve as stories for those tribes, it explains Max’s “action movie” endurance and skill, and if these stories spread from tribe to tribe over time, it explains why some of the tales seem to occur very shortly after the fall and others, like Fury Road, deep in the dark age when tyrants like Immortan Joe can have fathered a whole generation of mutant child soldiers.

 

Of course, the above is all fan wankery intended to explain away the very real world impact of creator George Miller’s changing views, the differences in budgets and special effects capabilities, and the fact of recasting Max after so long. Even so, it is suggestive of an aspect of storytelling we do no often see and I think has legs, creatively speaking: some stories — that is, narratives that we produce on paper or on the screen — are themselves stories in the worlds of those stories. Certainly it is an idea that has been used before intentionally, mostly as a way to embrace the unreliable narrator, but I am suggesting that is works as both an intentional narrative tool and as a way for fans and future writers to engage wroks, especially franchises.

 

As an example, consider the Prequel Trilogy for Star Wars. Ignoring whatever flaws one may consider those films to have as actual entertainment, they definitely change the nature the universe of the original Star Wars films. This can be explained as casting the Original Trilogy as a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, where everything gets square and textured (compared to the Prequels’ glossy appearance), but I think there is a better explanation: the Prequel Trilogy is actually the story that Obi Wan tells Luke on Degobah (as a ghost) to keep Luke focused on the mission to kill Vader. After Vader outs himself as Anakin, Luke had a crisis of faith  and Obi Wan knew that he needed to hear a story that both jived with what Vader told him but also maintained the narrative that Obi Wan, Yoda and the Rebellion had already sold. It explains why someone so vile as to murder “younglings” could “still have good in him” — in other words, Anakin never murdered the younglings (the Emperor likely did) and Luke could sense that, which allowed him to draw out the last vestiges of good in Vader. Many of the other aspects of the Prequels were likely fabricated or embellished by Obi Wan as well, because at the time Luke was still a hot headed youth who needed to hear those kinds of stories. By the start of Jedi, Luke had grown beyond the need for those “childish things” and was beginning to doubt what he had been told by both Obi Wan and Yoda. Luke may have never learned the truth, but the reality of the lies dawn on him when he visits Yoda for the last time.

 

Again, more fan wankery, but you see my point. Some stories work very well as stories within stories and actually make the properties better. It is a narrative tool we, as writers, can use intentionally and one that we, as fans, can play with to help us get more out of our favorite franchises.

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Table Top Roleplaying Games as Literature

Previously, I talked about how games in general might serve as literature, but I want to focus specifically on the aspects of table top roleplaying games here. TTRPGs are primarily a hobby, enjoyed by millions (so they tell us) with varying degrees of dedication, but I would argue that they are also a narrative medium and, as such, literature. Note that I am not talking about RPG tie-in fiction or even the books written for use in and out of play, from world defining guides to adventure modules to rule books. Rather, I am referring to the play itself as well as the sort of post-play revision of that play (which I’ll talk about more later).

It is the narrative feature of TTRPGs that allow their play to be considered literature. In many cases, that narrative is shallow and/or linear, relying on overly-worn tropes and cliches. This truth, though, should not disqualify it from being considered literature, as much of what is thought of traditionally as literature is also shallow, linear, obvious and cliched. In rarer cases, the play of a TTRPG becomes something special, surprising the very people engaged in it and becoming, at least for the time they sit at the table and often for years to come, something wholly new and brilliant and engaging. Because TTRPGs rely on a collective to achieve successful play, with each participant providing not just character and dialogue but narrative structure, the literature that results resembles nothing so much as an improv troupe performing a mash up of Lord of the Rings and Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

Even so, story is achieved. What is interesting about TTRPG story development is that it is iterative in a few different ways. At its most basic level, during play, it is iterative in that occasionally decisions are reversed or results altered in order to strengthen or tighten the emerging narrative. On another level, iteration occurs during the ongoing connected adventures referred to as a “campaign” where rough edges are filed off and plot holes filled between adventures. This process is similar to the patchwork “retroactive continuity” or retconning common in comics books, with so many creators operating in shared universes with the same characters. It is smaller scale in TTRPGs, but exists nonetheless; inconsistencies and/or bad ideas are inevitable, and the campaign iterative process creates a more cohesive experience and narrative. Finally, there is an iterative process in reporting. That is, when the game is complete and the participants are telling the story of the story, ten minutes later or ten years, they refine that narrative through intentional modification and omission, reconstructed memory and post-play assessment. When a player tells you about how his 18th level paladin totally backstabbed Orcus, that is iterative narrative at work.

The problem with TTRPG play as literature, of course, is that, aside from that reporting iteration described above, there is most often no record, no text of the event. This is changing as more and more groups record their play and post it as podcasts on the internet. Especially when that play revolves around commonly shared experiences (Paizo’s Adventure Paths or beloved Dungeons and Dragons modules, for example) those recordings become very interesting documents indeed. Imagine different groups of actors all producing a version of Hamlet in one night with no script on hand, then comparing the results. There are so-called “actual play” reports common on gaming message boards, as well, and they provide a unique view into (usually) one individual’s perception of what happened during play. Those are not as reliable sources for what actually occurred, but are often much better literature to emerge out of play, as they are commonly the last step in the iteration of the story.

An on-line archive of TTRPG play, both in recorded format as well as post-play reports and transcripts, would go a long way toward establishing what happens at the table as a form of literature. I do not think it is likely that anyone would put such a transcript up for a Pulitzer, let alone that it would win, but that’s not the point. However small and niche and even weird the hobby of table-top roleplaying — of, essentially, a group of friends getting together to tell a story, with some rules and randomizers along to iron out disagreements about how things should develop in the narrative — it is, I believe, a form of literature and should be preserved and examined.