Thursday, October 23, 2008

RPGS, Greek Tragedy, and Greenspan

I was watching the Newshour with Jim Lehrer tonight, and it triggered some "deep thoughts" about rpgs. The Newshour showed Alan Greenspan's testimony before Congress today about the economic collapse. Greenspan talked about his shock that his "ideology" had proven wrong - that his free market view of the world had led to terrible and unpredictable consequences. Of course, the media jumped on this, because who wants an ideologue guiding economic policy? But as a social scientist, I have much empathy for Greenspan. If you listen beyond the sound bytes, he was really talking about his theoretical model through which he views the world, which is supported by an ample amount of empirical and historical evidence (yeah yeah, his model involves some problems clearly, but that's not what this post is about). Really, theoretical models are one of the central tools of social science, and when one confronts problems with their basic assumptions, it causes serious shock. Greenspan indicated as much.

(Bear with me, we're getting to rpgs.)

This Greenspan stuff in turn reminded me of Greek tragedy, which I used to read and teach. One central feature of Greek tragedy (and the Iliad) is playing out what happens when humans meet their conceptual limitations - when they realizd that the most fundamental things they believe are wrong (you know, like when you realize that your lover is your mom). That's when shit hits the fan. Part of the point is that we're just human; we're not gods. And a key different between humans and gods is the ability to know or see the world for what it is. Our worldviews always have flaws, and as humans, we always need theoretical worldviews to organize and even form what we know and see. That just a fundamentally shitty part of being human.

(Here's the rpg part.)

I've had so much fun thinking about Greek tragedy over the years and seeing things play out similarly on the global stage in recent months (only from an intellectual standpoint, duh), that I wonder if these kinds of themes could be integrated into rpgs. In a way that's actually fun. Could I fruitfully play a character that this kind of tragedy happens to? Would it just be stupid?

In our "old school" game right now, this kind of game may not work. I'm playing a holy roller paladin with no doubt about his worldview, so he'd be perfect for this kind of tragedy at first glance. But I'm having the most fun gaming that I think I've had since I started playing with some of my current group a couple years ago. Much of my fun comes from kicking ass and talking in goofy voices - not deep philosophical intersections between gaming and tragedy. Also, we're using Savage Worlds, so there's no mechanical support for this kind of thing (is there anywhere and is it fun if it's out there?).

But here's another idea: It may be possible to implement something like this as a GM - somehow turning the basic assumptions of the world upside down in a way that creates a crisis for characters to deal with. (Pat - I'm not encouraging you to do this for our current game, because it's great like it is.) The rpg version of an economic crisis. That way, we could still have raucous fun without getting bogged down in the depression of it all. So it would still be fun. But would it have enough tragedy in the game to bring out the themes I'm interested in?

I just don't know, and I'm probably out thinking myself what this post. Maybe I should just stick to channeling my inner 13 year old.


philgamer said...

That's some interesting thoughts on the nature of Greek Tragedy, great stuff to mull over.

Oddly, it's got me thinking about Exalted, the game where you run around as demigods and remaking the world in your image. One of it's inspirations is Greek Mythology (and by extension therefore, Greek Tragedy.)

I've had bad experiences with the game since most of the players devolve into anime powertrip of the week, but the seed of setting up a Greek Tragedy story revolving around beliefs being proven wrong due to the lack of omniscience is now nibbling in the back of my creative mind.

I guess I just wanted to thank you for sparking something in the back of my skull... I might just be able to run Exalted now.

Ravyn said...

Phil: Yeah, the system's built for it. If you're really lucky, you get a set of players that can balance out the Whee Anime Mood with being able to handle the tragedy element without it being mechanically shoved on them, but even the ones that can't have to deal with that element.

Supah: Excellent article. I tried something sort of like that at one point. Not sure how well it worked--one of the characters involved ran out of character arc after that point, and the rest I think are still getting their feet under them. Though I have an upcoming idea involving an NPC who's about to go tragic hero if something isn't done...

Tim said...

"Playing out what happens when humans meet their conceptual limitations" was one of the central themes of the Call of Cthulhu games that I ran back in the day.

Supah said...

Phil & Raven: I have to admit that Exalted scares the crap out of me. It's not the powergaming part; I'm pretty confident my current group wouldn't take advantage of whatever powergaming opportunities are there (or at least, not too badly to make the game not fun). It's just the sheer crunch of it all. I just have no desire to learn all these rules.

One thing I'm really into is mechanical support to reinforce key themes in a game. Does Exalted have any such support for worldviews being overturned? At the very least, the game seems like it has a great premise for playing out tragedy - characters are gods...but not.

Tim - Cthulhu is one of my all time favorite games. But the way we played, it was all about the inevitable descent into madness after experiencing Scary Shit. Much more about experiencing things beyond oneself and pooping pants instead of actively making decision after decision and finding out that the basis for these decisions was wrong.