Oren Ashkenai recently decried “The Five Destructive Myths Perpetuated by Roleplaying Games.” He complains about the ways that some people play, but paints with too broad a brush, because obviously he tries not to play that way, and others do to. As a historian, his myths are familiar but seem too simplistic. Here’s the five myths he says rpgs perpetuate:
1. The Great Man of History
2. Social Ties Don’t Matter
3. The Explorer Fallacy
4. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
5. Violence is the Ultimate Solution
Let’s take them one at a time…
Great Man of History: Ok, so it is difficult for one person to make a change. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying. To think one can make a difference is how things can get better, and if a fantasy reinforces the hope that one can do that, I’m all for it. If someone thinks that they did it all by themselves, well, then they are just validating their position and influence, and that is ignorant and destructive. But I think people can make a difference, because their actions can resonate with others. Oren uses Gandhi as an example of someone who didn’t do it all himself. Right. But he sure helped.
Social Ties: This isn’t even a problem for any experienced roleplayers. Even if someone plays Pathfinder or D&D, a skilled DM will have a social structure fleshed out every time. That’s why people DM, to be able to create viable fantasy worlds. It puzzles me that he would even put this in there.
Explorers: This is related to the Great Man myth, in that European explorers typically “discovered” new lands and people, and then typically subjugated them. This chest-pounding is common in white liberals (and I’m one by the way!), and that is a good thing if it makes those in power more aware of those who are not. It is also naive. Humanity is greedy and fearful much of the time, so just plan on that. We still have slavery and war in the world, and that is not going to be going away. It may change form, but that is humanity. Grieving about the imperialistic actions of our forebears is accepting their faults while recognizing that without them, we wouldn’t be here. I think Americans do this a lot, because we have the idea that somehow we are God’s greatest creation. Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of things about the U.S., and it is a great place to live. I’m grateful. But we aren’t number one any more, and it is probably smarter to start worrying about what the rest of the world will do to us as we keep slipping. What happens when China decides it has too many people and they need a little Lebensraum? I’m not looking forward to that moment. But back to exploring. Exploring is also about curiosity and that is a good thing. Visiting new places and meeting new people and cultures is fascinating, both in reality and in fantasy. More about this when I talk about #5.
What doesn’t kill you: Ok, this is a major problem with D&D and most of its descendants. My current elf mage may be shot in the head by one of the other guys in the party when he finds out my elf murdered his sister (she was an elf-eating witch, so there were extenuating circumstances). But I’m high enough level that I could probably survive that, because D&D adds Hit Points to characters as they advance. That’s stupid. Doesn’t happen in my game or in others (Runequest for example). People get better as they train, but they get older and lose stats and become sick or injured as well. What doesn’t kill you, maims you for life, as I always say.
Violence is the Ultimate Solution: Well, it is. It is not the best solution, but it pretty much ends the argument. Oren says, “real violence usually creates more problems than it solves.” Sure. And that’s true in fantasy worlds too. And that is, as Oren says, one of the attractions. I once talked to a miner who explained that there was nothing to do in a mining town, so there was always a fight on Saturday night to liven things up. Yep, humanity again. Violence is not only exciting, it can be fun for the winner. I knew a martial arts champion who won most if not all of his matches. At the end of his life, he explained that he also broke most of the bones in his body, and lost his wife because of his dedication to his art. And yet he kept doing it! I think violence is a part of humanity. Hopefully it is not the biggest part. Raising kids and making friends is pretty great too. And that also can be part of a game.
Now my biggest problem with Oren’s article. Rpgs are fantasy, not reality. Oren’s argument works well for reality, but after a long week at the office, chopping up orcs is a fun way to work out one’s aggressions and probably healthier than going down to the bar and grousing about the week. Take a look at John Eric Holmes’ article, “Confessions of a Dungeon Master” from back in 1980. Holmes talks about Grog the Barbarian, played by “a brilliant young doctor.” I think that says it better than I could.