RPG’s As Modern Ritual Storytelling Volume I

“In the dark did we hear drums pound, hearts beating in time, we begin our own challenge. Axe upon shield. Let them come, let them hear the song of our fury! So we formed a circle from our fire, casting our shades into the gloom. Our screams unabated as wind from a hateful storm. 

The first attack came, the Picts, like cowards they are, spat their wound-fish at us. Hasufel took one in his throat, his bright blood coming in waves as he smiled.” Karna bent to her knee, pouring some of her small beer into his mouth. ‘Let him die not thirsty’, she spoke. We roared in laughter, the Picts lay like pale worms, content to let the arrows be cast. Our shields clattered with the meekness of their craft.

Our taunting they could no longer accept, the truth-craft lay shame too deeply upon their mud soft souls. They came at us with pitiful yelps, like dogs after scraps. But in us they found a full meal, and one still alive. Their bronze-tipped poles met again our stout shields. The iron of our craft they accepted with anguished cries. Beckoning for some fell, weakling gods aid which, were unheard. This was Wotan’s ground! Where we walk is Wotan’s air! The crows would feast well at dawn.

The only loss was young Hasufel, for which we tore thirty and three of them apart. The scar on my cheek was a prick of their spear. I will not stand before Valhalla with no marks. It would be unfair to give such manlings no chance at all!”

The men and women in Karnik’s Hall laughed and raised horned cups. The story of last years battle while raiding north of Umbria was a town favorite. They savored every word, every warrior that was there had his or her own telling. Boasting of well placed strokes of their axes. Thrusts of spear and the breaking of bones.

This brought them together, so that all in the hall could live that memory. Even the children who would grow mighty on their own and give stories to rival Karniks’ own.

For thousands of years we committed stories to memory. A bard was considered a treasure, the skald was a herald of his people. We gathered around fires, drinks in hand, and told the tales of our people. The triumphs, the conquering of others. The losses of loved ones in grand adventure. Confined to the halls of triumph for dying bravely.

Here, too, we also shamed the nefarious, those weaklings who would beset our people with trouble. How they stole from us, acted poorly and dishonored the gods. Firing the blood of those around us to take revenge for slights generations old. The worse fate a man could endure in Celtic lands was to have a bard place a satire upon him. (Maybe where Gygax got the idea that lute players can cast spells?)

Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) is a prime example of this. Irish story telling at its finest.There is daring, a hero that emerges. Feats of strength. A reinforcement of what is seen as ‘Prime Warriorship’. The representation of what a Celt SHOULD be. A stereotype they didn’t let go of. They wanted the men of their clans to be like this. An archetype of what they should be.

What ever happened to that…obama-pajama-boy-white-house-r

So, in place of this history of storytelling, we began something in the 70’s that took its place. Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Metamorphosis Alpha, Tunnels and Trolls, etc. You’ll notice that on the art, it’s strong men, beautiful women, cunning rogues, pious priests, and mysterious wizards.

These have become something called ‘tropes’, which sounds like a dismissive term to me. I call them archetypes. These are ideal representations of who we aspire to be. We want to tell stories of glorious treasures won, foul beasts laid open. Cheering townsfolk welcoming our return. Can any of you remember a time in which you felt on top of the world from RPG’s?

When you found the blacksmith’s daughter alive in the bandit lair, when you fended off a night raid of beastmen from the woods? The power of these stories still remain in us. We’ve become a softer society for better, or for worse, but we still need archetypes to look at to show us how to be. Most of the populace gets this information from television and movies. Iron Man 495, Captain America 45, Hyper Intelligent Doctor/Crime Solver season 33. We gather around that glowing box or screen, food and drink in hand yearning to know how the rest of the story goes. The ritual torch is with us still, we gather in halls (Theaters) or in our homes and celebrate

What about us? You know what I mean. The ‘Us’ with a capital U that enjoys sitting in the company of others pretending to be these archetypes instead of watching them. We hobbyists and storytellers would rather make our own. Now, I have a theory as to why. I think because we see the Hollywood machine as so geared towards money they forgot to tell the damn stories.

Have you ever watched someone play a character in an RPG and just totally disagree with its very creation? Take 3.5 edition D&D for example. I had a store game going where the gentlemen in question wanted to play a, Half-Elf, Half-Fire Genasi, Sorcerer multi-classed with (I shit you not) a Ninja. Every fiber of my being railed against this very concept. What on earth is this guy thinking, I wondered.

Well, I asked. Because that’s who I am. I get to the point much more directly in person. He had never read any books. Ever. Not one that wasn’t required in his schooling. His thing was (You’ll never guess it.) Anime, Animu, Monga…. whatever the hell it’s called. So he was playing an archetype , just one from another culture than the typical pan-European one I was used to. When he explained it, I was on board. I understood what he was trying to be. I still disliked it but it got my brain working about archetypal roles in gaming.

(As a side note his character died, I don’t use a DM screen, and I never fudge rolls. Bad decisions, lead to last decisions. Fast collision, now yo ass is missin’.) -Poetry by DMX

So, it is in my personal opinion that we carry on this eternal torch. Telling of things we should aspire to BE. Heroic, clever, pious, unflinching in the face of hell and all its torments to protect the ones we love. Even if it is just a level 1 commoner you kissed once behind the barn.

Again, there’s so much in this topic I thought very long and hard about what to include and what not to include. Instead of getting deeply into the nuance of mythical storytelling and archetypal roles that we adopt I’m going to give you a book list instead. Peruse it at your leisure, or use that comment section down below to ask something about it. Seriously, guys… there is a comment section. I figured that out…. use the damned thing!

Recommended Reading

Mythology 101: From Gods and Goddesses to Monsters and Mortals, Your Guide to Ancient Mythology (Adams 101)
Bulfinch’s Mythology (Leather-bound Classics)
The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry
History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries
A History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 2: From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity
A History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 3: From Muhammad to the Age of Reforms
Man’s Search for Meaning, An Introduction to Logotherapy
The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)
Myths to Live By
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
The Power of Myth

Jeez Oghma, that’s a lot of reading. If you could pick only one, go with The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Well, I hope you enjoyed it. I have a feeling I’ve missed something important in this post. Anyhow, please use the comment section or hit me up on twitter. I will gladly speak your ear off on these topics as the book list above is only a sample of my collection on the ideas I’m blogging on. That was a run on sentence, and since my wife is preoccupied I’d like to say, “I will sit were I please!”

Godspeed Friends

ESM

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12 thoughts on “RPG’s As Modern Ritual Storytelling Volume I

  1. Interesting stuff, mate. I think you’re really onto something with regards to rpg’s being the current incarnation of ritual storytelling. Of course the ritual has changed a bit, but we still remember those fun campaigns and cool characters and tell stories about them to each other. There’s a lot here you could expand on. Looking forward to hearing more from you in the future!

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  2. Very well said, sir. I’m right with you, and I’ve written something related to this, though you’re obviously more well-studied and experience in this arena than I. My take was in the context of newer editions coddling player characters more, as opposed to older editions with more frequent character death. I don’t see this as reflecting negatively upon newer editions, because as you say, there are players who want to tell a story. They want a character who they’re going to stick with and build. Dying at level 1 or 2 and rerolling multiple times can be fun, if that’s the story you want to tell. But if you’re investing in a Conan, you may find easy death is an impediment to that. So while some veterans may scoff at the newer versions, I think they have their place in telling different kinds of stories.

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  3. “The ‘Us’ with a capital U that enjoys sitting in the company of others pretending to be these archetypes instead of watching them. We hobbyists and storytellers would rather make our own.”

    YES. YES. YES. I could not agree more.

    Regarding your point about Hollywood focusing on making money rather than telling stories, I think there is a more sinister force at work rather than just simple greed. There are those who do not want heroism or honor or piety or anything virtuous to be a regular part of your media diet. Any time you sit at a table and roll up Bob VII the Fighter, hero of Generic Fantasy Village, it is act of defiance against those who seek to strip our culture of virtue.

    Okay, I will admit it is a minor act of defiance. Really, really minor.

    However, even though Bob VII may meet the same fate as Bob I – VI, he will be more of a hero than 90% of what the media puts out there.

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  4. Archetypes rather than tropes, Yes!

    I have not seen anyone refer to the Tain in a long time. There is a lot here worth thinking about; I like your idea of archetypes as exemplars, to be aspired to.

    But don’t throw that 600 word chunk about Hollywood away; I think you could make another post our of it and I’d like to read that.

    Thank you.

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    • Most of those 600 words began with F. My wife pointed out correctly I wasn’t being very charitable and should find smarter ways to criticize, as a Catholic if this gets read enough I don’t want to be one of those ‘hypochristians’ I disdained so heavily in my youth. I’ll try to reword it 😂

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    • If you haven’t read Gregory Frost’s TAIN, you should. A truly excellent retelling that really captures the “Irishness” of it. I truly appreciated it after visiting Connacht, Ulster and Meath in 2002.

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