Five Destructive Myths

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.


About lostdelights

An old gamer flying his freak flag, I've been playing table-top role-playing games since 1978. I've been building my own system (Journeyman) since 1981.
This entry was posted in Advice to Beginners, Dungeons and Dragons, Journeyman, Pathfinder, Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Five Destructive Myths

  1. I agree with your assessment, and sadly, due to the fact that the author of the post you’re linking to doesn’t want to engage in discussion means he’s more out to preach some manifesto than actually see if his topic is actually worth discussing.

    However, I would like to point out that ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’ is realistic. Strength isn’t just physical, it’s mental and emotional. And there are rare cases of people beating their disabilities in both fantastical and practical ways.

    • lostdelights says:

      So what doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you? 🙂 Defeating one’s disabilities may make one stronger in other ways, and perhaps even open new possibilities, but not having a leg still means you don’t have a leg.

  2. Eric says:

    I believe this is an interesting commentary, but it is specifically about D&D/PF.

    I am an avid CoC player and Keeper. The whole tone of that game, and of the setting, is that your investigators are small, meaningless nuisances, unable to change the course of history. You are reliant on friends, family and social connections to keep you going. Exploration and curiosity are swiftly punished with a silent unseen death or gibbering madness. What doesn’t kill you, will be the last thing you see with a sane mind. Violence is at best futile, and at worst will result in you pulling on all of your social networks again to avoid the Law.

    The Fantasy RPGs are wish fulfillment exercises most of the time. As the author says, after days of frustration in your ordinary mundane life, sometimes you do just want to slaughter some orcs. This escapism is definitely an important (if not the most important) part of Roleplaying, but it is not the be-all and end all, just ask the CoC guys, or the Travellers…

    • lostdelights says:

      Right. And I’ve played both of those. I was responding to Oren’s complaint that essentially, rpgs perpetuate fascist myths. I thought his comments stereotyped rpgs in a way that was unfair, or at least, with too broad a brush.

      Any game reflects the outlook of the referee, even COC. I never enjoyed the characters dying every session. That got old after a while (for me). When I ran COC, I gave the players a chance to run away, and sometimes to win. I tossed in some Indiana Jones stuff, some Miss Marple, and even some Traveler. We had a whole campaign where the players joined Nazis who used flying saucers and asteroid vessels to start a war with the Mi-Go. The COC game turned into a year-long Traveler campaign as the players fled the system. Another COC game (in colonial New England) changed to a Journeyman game in Navah, when the players when through a Maelstrom.

      Not every COC game needs to be Mountains of Madness deadly. Early Lovecraft was more whimsical and more influenced by Lord Dunsany.

      I loved early Traveler (have all the books and read all the E.C. Tubb stories) but it was difficult for me to enjoy as an rpg, because there was too much gear. The gear often defined the character, kind of like having too many magic items in D&D. The players also could travel too far, because they would often Jump again rather than explore a system the ref had put a lot of time into. The Galactic mapping software helped the ref keep up a lot, as did the Starmapper program my brother Matt designed, but it still wasn’t my cup of tea.

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