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Tabletop Meditations #1: Treading Common Ground

While participating in roleplaying games many times over I’ve found myself sitting with people I’d not otherwise associate with, individuals with whom I could easily creep through dripping sewers infested with giant mutated leeches or fight the ravening hordes of either zombies or orcs side-by-side but with whom I simply could not get along with away from the tabletop. Our only common ground being the table between us.

This may have been such because of either a collision of personalities or by accident of disposition which occasionally, of course, would erupt during the game but not often. Outside of the game we would have very little if anything, besides the game itself, in common our personal interests laying in completely unrelated areas and even in those that were related, mostly mutual interest in fantasy especially in the Lord of the Rings movies (at the time of the longest lived gaming group that I’ve been a part of), our attentions and emphases would be on different areas or our foci would be in completely different places. Over the tabletop however, we were knit together, granted occasionally our characters at each other’s throats but it was as they would do in-game, by table culture and interest in the current campaign even over outside influences such as the overall tabletop roleplaying culture as can be tangentially experienced and engaged for the most part through the tubing of the internet.

The only common ground between us besides fantasy and sci-fi genera was the tabletop and the activity of roleplaying. Even the subject that should have united each member with the others in our group (at the time), heroic fantasy, a subject on which we differed drastically each person with their own particularly strong opinions and preferences on the subject.

A particular sore spot in one incarnation of that gaming group when it came to outside but related interests were Drizzt & the Icewind Dale Trilogy. I hated these finding them particularly pedantic and frankly boring with major scenes ripped off from the Lord of the Rings books (Icewind Dale Trilogy) as the action set-pieces, found in reverse order in these novels from what I remember, blech! When it came to THE dark elf, Drizzt seemed to me a pale copy of Elric of Melniboné and the Dark Elf Trilogy (sensing a pattern here?) was just as lame as the previously mentioned Icewind Dale books and treated characters as devices rather than towards any genuine attempt at using characterization to drive the narrative such as Clacker – the Hook Horror which seemed to just be there to pluck at a heart string or two before he’s done away with.

Another memorable bit from the Dark Elf novels concerns a very out-of-place graphic orgy/demon-rape scene which again is just there to titillate and/or shock especially the incestuous interaction between Drizzt and his priestess sister. Basically all six novels seemed to rely on lazy and cheap hack-writer tactics but one guy at the table, let’s call him Big-H, LOVED these things, in fact in an effort to try to get a better footing on some shared earth between the two of us I read all six of the damned things, needless to say I think our concepts of what constitutes GOOD fantasy fiction differed quite a lot. My suggestions to him, none of which he read, were the “Original Saga” of Elric (consisting of Elric of Melniboné, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, and the Weird of the White Wolf), bet you didn’t see THAT coming, and the dell editions of Robert E. Howards work, namely The Conquering Sword of Conan specifically due to one of my favorite of the pantherish barbarian’s adventures, Beyond the Black River.

The real trouble would begin when Big-H would insert things he read in an R.A. Salvatore novel (then his favorite novelist, I have no idea if that’s still the case) into the game when he would referee/game-master, a particular incident which nearly ended a campaign was when we openly decided to and successfully took Drizzt out. Taking both mine and Big-H’s fiction preferences as combined examples into account even though both are fantasy and arguably of the sword & sorcery genre they couldn’t be farther apart in style, content, and might I say, originality. At the table though our differences colored our in-game conduct and altered how we constructed our game-worlds & structured our campaigns when we would Game-Master.

In fact another friend, let’s call him Red, that had played for a while had similar but still very different preferences for fiction from either Big-H or myself. He was a devotee for a brief period of the Discworld books; I enjoyed the first four novels (compiled in an SFBC edition called Rincewind the Wizzard which I still own) but had no interest outside of those.

He seemed to more enjoy the humorous, light-hearted side of things as well as the weird monsters, I tend to enjoy the more atmospheric and action-oriented type stories not that I don’t enjoy the humorous side of fantasy; I like the Xanth books as an example, my favorite among those being Castle Roogna, and again my penchant for Sword & Sorcery becomes apparent. Red often described scenes, characters, and incidents that had recently amused him found in the pages of whichever novel in the series he had recently read sometime before the game. Typically prefaced with the statement “I was just reading something really awesome on the toilet”. He was a self-confessed bathroom reader; information I could have done without by the way especially when he would go into graphic detail about an especially memorable poo, yech!

I, again, recommended Moorcock’s Elric books the first of which I loaned him but he didn’t like it due to the anti-heroic nature of the perpetually morose and somewhat unlucky albinic protagonist and the torture scenes, too dark for him apparently. He did express a passing interest in the Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser books when yet another player and I would talk about mutually enjoyed exploits of the daring duo. Unfortunately, to my knowledge Red never got around to reading those. Basically, everyone at the table at any given time seems to have had very distinct tastes in the fantasy that on the surface had brought us all to the table but that vague and general interest by itself certainly didn’t provide much tack to keep us all together in the real world as friends though it did contribute to the overall table-culture as it applied directly to game-play at least allowing us to be “table-friends”.

Table-friends being those individuals that really don’t have a close association outside of the game basically only seeing and interacting with each other in context to game-night. This might result from things as simple as scheduling conflicts or as complex as personal incompatibility. As I’ve been reading both in books and on various message boards/aggregators this is not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to gaming groups.

“Typically, those who participate in fantasy gaming groups develop a social network consisting of other group members; overtime …members of these groups become acquaintances and then friends. However, it appears that these social ties often do not transcend the gaming settings; gaming friends need not be, and frequently are not, friends outside the gaming group.” [Shared Fantasy, Gary Alan Fine, The University of Chicago Press, 1983, pg.237 – emphasis mine]

Experience has demonstrated to me that the incongruity of personalities and disparity of attitude within a group and the consistent minor conflicts that that entails sometimes resulting from gameplay itself is definitely a contributing factor to the disintegration of roleplaying groups. What kept all of us at the table was interest in participating in the shared fantasy and our interest in the game and its elements and of course the desire for fun. A major factor that helped to keep us together so we could engage in fantasy gaming and find our common ground there was the group culture that formed around the table, the table-culture of our group .

This involved the habits and rules governing behavior while at the table and what we found acceptable within the game and at play, behavior and traditions unique to every group around every table gathering members under a single uniting umbrella that shelters only their own table. The roleplaying community as whole consists of common references and special portions of knowledge, its own form of pop-culture, basically a subculture in and of itself but the community overall is composed of smaller cells, each cell a separate and self-identifying roleplaying group and its table culture that contributes to group cohesion as its this sub-subculture that exists at the table among each individual group distinguishing them from the rest of the roleplaying rabble.

“Every group develops a culture…termed its idioculture (Fine 1979). An idioculture is a system of knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, and customs peculiar to an interacting group [.]” [Gary Alan Fine, 1983, pg.136; author’s citation]

Idiocultures transcend certain aspects that appear to be central to gaming groups, especially to those outside since these are the most evident, such as genre and even system preference. Its idioculture that serves as a glue just outside of gameplay (or on the meta-side as it were) to keep a group at a table so that they can enter the game as a unit and form an adventuring party, regardless of the in-game dysfunction or efficiency (or lack thereof) of such a unit. Within this social structure disparate individuals come together for some fun.

This allows individual players to gather and begin to take an interest as they roll-up characters, explore the mysteries and horrors of the fantasy world, seek out and enter into conflicts that test their intellect and composure as well as that of their in-game personas. If it is a general interest in fantasy that can bring individuals together, it is the idioculture that can keep them together long enough to allow them to build a mutual interest, lay the groundwork for an imaginative construct upon which they can produce their own very personalized entertainment.

Of course if the members of a group cannot focus on the game taking interest in its elements in some manner the table-culture will only serve as a bandage holding the group together until something of interest can be found (or happens) or until there’s a clash of wills which can cause a group to self-destruct or simply dissipate without so much as a whimper.

The two major factors in the dissolution of gaming groups, at least in my experience, are the differences between individuals meaning those that are only assuaged by the common ground of gaming and real life occurrences. One cannot do much about life other than to go with the flow so that’s a moot point and definitely should be excused if not wholly understood at the time of departure.

A game IS just a game after all. Conflicting attitudes kept in check by a mutual interest in the game can cause the group to completely disintegrate in the blink of an eye when player interest wanes. When the players are no longer interested in the setting, in exploring the GM’s world, and building a mutual fantasy the framework of the group begins to tumble down, sometimes all at once, like a Jenga-Tower stacked too haphazardly but even this collapse can be somewhat stalled by interest in one’s own character but part of that is of course, testing them against the GM’s world; after all interest in the fantasy world does feed directly into the players’ interest in their own characters.

When interest in the game-world is lost the group will inevitably begin to fall apart as normally incompatible personalities which when interest is high can actually be a contributing force to the mutual fantasy become absolutely destructive causing games to suddenly explode into argument and creating the circumstances ripe for in-game back-stabbing and bad character deaths which can murder the fun that brought everyone to the table in the first place. When it gets particularly bad some may leave the realm of tabletop forever over very REAL feelings of betrayal by those they may have considered friends (the latter statement being based on an actual non-anecdotal incident).

Not to say backstabbing in-game is always a bad thing it is just a very risky endeavor though it can contribute when conducted correctly (and very carefully) to mutual interest (as well as in-game vengeance justified or otherwise). Group interest in the game is key in keeping groups together and at the table rolling dice. Interest is the deepest bedrock of a fantasy roleplaying group on top of which they build their mutual fantasy and sediment new imaginative layers over the old through play to create rich, deep imaginative worlds.

Groups are held, often loosely, together by mutual interest in the game that they are playing, to a lesser extent by group idioculture, and by a general interest in the subject matter shared by its members. These help individuals with disparate tastes, differing opinions & backgrounds, and discordant dispositions to find a foothold on mutual ground in a shared imaginative world, at least in my opinion. But interest and the investment in the fantasy itself and its components is what is absolutely central to any successful roleplaying group even over mutual outside interests, table-culture, and maybe even friendship away from the tabletop.

Ultimately Red and Big-H among others simply drifted away a few had stormed from the table in a huff never to return. All of the groups that they, and I, participated in over a period of about 10-years all fell apart in the end sometimes to come back in a new incarnation but ultimately the last to have at least two of us as members fell apart from a combination of life and personal friction never to reform.

That’s just my rambling meditation on the clash between personalities at the table, the double-edge of fantasy gaming I suppose.