Head-Banging, Dice-Rolling, and Summoning Demons

Preliminary, incomplete, idiosyncratic notes/responses to tonight’s fun panel discussion by Chris Robichaud, Peter Bebergal, and Ethan Gilsdorf at Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge.

D&D’s moral universe is presented schematically but tends to be fluid in practice—the famous open question about killing orc babies, not so easily answered by alignment—and while the Chaos/Law vs Good/Evil distinction is probably richer than either on its own, it doesn’t always map smoothly onto action. Especially in a drama—dramatic movement arguably is traversal of the alignment graph.

This is arguably a major strength of D&D, though; cf. @t3dy’s comment, which I hope I’m not misremembering: the purpose of the rules is to have a weird relationship to the rules. (Parallel w/literally constrictive moral & behavioural matrix of BDSM—another activity beloved of a surprising number of geeks.)

D&D/early RPGs as permissive space for kids and adults (almost exclusively male, I’d note) to mix—additional nuance: odd demographics of geekdom, e.g. autism-spectrum frequency in geek culture. Specific permissions need to be given to such a forebrain-heavy group. Not yet explicitly/effectively welcoming to other groups until much later. White Wolf games welcome drama-club kids, but while promising story, deliver power fantasy in eyeliner. Games like Ars Magica try to welcome other playstyles, explicit emphasis on drama (‘troupe’ play)—but never find purchase. RPG industry/players still resistant to self-consciously ‘dramatic’ play…but not in Europe, where that stuff is extremely popular (freeform/jeepform).

Prof Robichaud rightly praised the ‘DM workshop’ language in 5e DMG. (By the way, Ethan Gilsdorf had a copy of the unreleased 5e DMG at the talk, the bastard, yet I resisted murdering him and stealing it—kudos to me, right?) But then, a maybe-interesting historical dynamic: as explicit ‘DM empowerment’ talk gets more prevalent in RPGs, actual existing workshops are less numerous—today’s DMs may never set foot in a woodshop in their lives.

In early D&D, death was random, fickle, anti-dramatic, and permanent—just as in real life. Meanwhile, the other day on rpg.net there was a heated discussion about whether in-game death should ever be non-dramatic—whether it ‘ruins’ the game to tie player-punishment to character death, etc. Increasingly common player expectation that character death should even be planned—and ‘deadly dungeon crawls,’ while enoying a renaissance in corners of the hobby, are backbench stuff in D&D/Pathfinder. Yes dungeons, but not so much deadly (if part 3 of a 6-part ‘adventure path’ is deadly, you’ll never get to (purchase) part 4)…

Parallel moral panics: satanic rock’n’roll/Elvis’s hips, and JDEgbert’s disappearance/Chick tracts about RPGs. But one was about sex (e.g. satanic church/black mass ironize and explicitly sexualize Catholic sensualism, ‘magic’ and ‘sex magic’ are constantly paired, etc.) while the other was about as committedly asexual as it gets—we giggle about breasts in the Monster Manual or the cover of Eldritch Wizardry but the closest D&D has come to dealing with sex is Gygax’s hopelessly misconceived ‘Comeliness’ stat.

Insofar as there’s such a thing as ‘The System,’ it doesn’t hate opposition views, it hates the admission that there is room for opposition—the undermining of certainty (cf. instant post-9/11 co-optation of radical Islam as new enemy, how comfortable that narrative was—but deep lasting terror over revelation of America’s vulnerability, only deepened by financial crises/ecological nightmares). As reality-testing space, D&D makes room for open questions, but not too much room—remember that early D&D literally equated ‘experience’ with gold, while 2e and after equated it with heroic acts (defeating rather than just getting around monsters, completing ‘story goals,’ etc.). 4e is limit case: ‘experience’ is a budget you spend to construct meaningful encounters, and ‘encounter’ means ‘fight.’ (Terminological slippage w/r/t ‘encounter’ is interesting throughline between 70s and 21C D&D.)

In game studies, the social contract binding rules, players, and playspace is called the ‘magic circle.’

Ancient conception of theater not just as reenactment but as activation of myth—literalized by D&D, in which the mythic tale doesn’t come into being until it’s acted out by the (hey look at this polyvalent term) players.

James Merrill’s poetic subject, after N. Frye: ‘the incarnation and withdrawal of a god.’

The character sheet is a mask—cf. Johnstone’s Impro on uses of masks to generate ‘out-of-self’ creative experiences & insights, in context of prep for theatrical performance. That said, most players might think that actually wearing a mask is going a bit too far. Total immersion actually lies outside many/most (adult) players’ comfort zones, it seems. Always maintaining distance, which is (per Zak S) a big part of the power of the games. Ironic distance is both enabler of electric social/private experience and defense against getting lost in the paracosm…


An engaging, thought-provoking evening. So glad I went. I wish it’d been part one of six, there’s clearly so much more to talk about.

Looking forward to thinking more on this stuff.

Another night in Cambridge. Ho hum.

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