Burden Of Knowledge – Roleplaying In Fantasy
Well, Derek continues to struggle without the conveniences of modern life and thus deprives me of material for my blog posts. Much like him, I had planned to spend a few days here and there giving my own impressions of his campaign as well as the development of my character. Dungeons and Dragons is a curious little game that can serve as practice for characterization and character growth and can teach tricks and techniques that are applicable to writing. In fact, both my sister and I have used previous role-playing sessions as the basis for shorts where we explore our character’s thoughts and feelings of the events that transpired in a little more depth.
Basically, a D&D session contains all the necessary components for writing a scene. It has multiple characters with different motivations, action, tension and resolutions. For the budding author, the great thing is that you don’t have to worry about the others. While playing, you just have your own character to deal with. And often times you will be just as surprised as your character by the decisions of the people that share your table and your party.
But all role-playing has some weaknesses. The player must draw upon the skills of an actor if they wish to truly play their character. They must separate their own self from their persona. This is an incredibly tricky proposition, one that requires practice in order to succeed. Otherwise the player’s own knowledge, experience and bias will bleed into the game. This “meta” knowledge is generally considered to be undesirable, though it can often serve a positive function that I may address in a future post.
I don’t want to go into the whole issue of meta-gaming in this post. It’s just important to have a basic understanding as I address my primary concern for today. As followers will know, Derek has been very informative in describing the world of Ikan’s Light. This is more than just filler content that he can copy and paste for his daily submissions. It helps to give the players an understanding of the world and some of the cogs that make it turn. Unfortunately, from a player perspective, there is only so much he can cover whether that be due to brevity or mystery for the campaign’s storyline. This creates a gap for the reader in their understanding of the world. A gap that doesn’t exist for the actual actors within it.
This leads to what I’m tentatively calling “the burden of knowledge.” The formation of an individual’s personality is so reliant upon the experiences and information they have gained through their life that almost every study of an individual will necessitate the exploration of their childhood and known world long before whatever events drew them to prominence. When we look at Hitler, we don’t just discuss the Beer Hall Putsch and beyond. It’s fairly well known that Adolf Hitler originally had aspirations of being an artist until the fickle hand of fate would direct him down a path of infamy and people ponder how things would have been different if he’d succeeded.
Likewise, the characters in role-playing campaigns didn’t spring suddenly into being when they crossed the threshold into some musty tavern’s hall. Awhile ago I posted a short story about my character Kase van der Nevel. That was an attempt to try and understand the background of my character a little better, especially since I am trying to avoid the sort of stock characters I often fall into playing with these games. In that story, I covered an episode from Kase’s past but though it wasn’t told through his eyes, I spent time developing some of the individuals and interactions he would have during his youth. Though it may be the briefest glimpse into his history, I hoped that it would give a bit of insight into his character. In it, I established things like his relationship with his mother and community.
But in writing this short I came across a troublesome issue. I was stumbling around in a world of fog with just the faintest outlines of shapes to guide my path. Most of my description and references to history were vague or not intrusive. I was just a visitor to this world and I hadn’t the knowledge to properly know what life in Kase’s village would be like. I didn’t know its history beyond the few paragraphs provided for the Dalmistig province. It would be rude and unproductive to invent my own history for the area since Derek is the arbitrator for the world and any conflicts are resolved solely in his hands. I can’t know the history of Dalmistig beyond what Derek provided since I don’t know how much he’s developed and how integrated it is into his world.
I’m going to make a confession. Authors have no idea what they’re doing. There isn’t some grand codex that details how you go about making a story. There are lots of guides but those are merely suggestions by those that have come before us. At the end of the day, writing is a very personal craft and each individual has his own method that works for him. However, I have no doubt that there are many gaps in the history and community of the misty hills if only because it is physically impossible for Derek to have detailed and outlined every single aspect. I know there is room for mutual creation in this world. I just don’t know where that room is.
Unlike most collaborations, one side here has a very prominent advantage. I can’t know the depths of Derek’s knowledge or where the actual holes rest that are waiting for me to plant my own posts. All players work at a deficiency compared to the Dungeon Master. Which is to be expected. The DM puts in far more hours of preparation for the adventures and campaigns and their grasp of the world is expected to be more advanced so that they can dazzle players with exciting new locales and events as well as resolve any questions or problems that arise from the players’ end.
And this puts the player in a tight spot. They can’t just run off, making up what they need for their characters without running the risk of contradictions. They also don’t have insight into a lot of the true history and culture of the worlds they’re stepping into. How then are they expected to play their characters in way that is nature with this deficiency? A player is like a visitor arriving in Japan, trying to seamlessly fit in with their culture and ways with only a collection of books and t.v. shows to work off. In the end, they can’t hide their true origins.
For me this problem is an ever growing one. The more fantastic the world becomes, the less grasp I have on it. A game like Vampire the Masquerade has a built in mechanism to ease this burden of knowledge. The games take place on Earth with most players coming from the human populations which have all progressed along analogous lines to modern times. But in Ikan’s Light, the world is so vastly different that there is no prior knowledge I can rely upon for my understanding.
Now, what is the ramifications of all this rambling? Most people don’t take issue with it and role-playing games are certainly very popular despite of it. For me, it has a direct impact on character personality and decisions. Most players, I would hazard, play characters similar to them or their interests. These ‘stock’ characteristics are likely drawn upon through campaigns and across different worlds. I don’t need to know the minutia of Kase’s life if he thinks and acts like me. But the more drastic departure from my own demeanor, the less I’m able to rely upon my own experiences to direct his actions.
As I mentioned, my hope for Kase is to explore a personality far different from what I’m used to. I want to bring to life an individual that is shaped by tradition and has wholly committed himself to a belief that he has no capabilities of understanding. He is a faith based individual, throwing aside his own personal expectations and bowing before the commands of a higher power. Critical and independent consideration of conflicts and events are an alien method and I really want to examine that sort of blind faith people can put behind a cause.
It’ll be an interesting challenge, I think, and one I look forward to when it finally begins. And while I wished I was more prepared going into it, hopefully Derek won’t mind my own personal tendency for world building and filling in gaps of his world. At the end of the day, role-playing is all about challenging yourself through exploring a strange world in the shoes of another, striving not for your own needs and desires but someone else’s entirely as they struggle against the conflicts arrayed against them. Even if that person doesn’t even exist.