Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Ironic Situation

There have been several times playing RPG's when I've become frustrated and thought that the most effective way to progress would be to form the players into a tight military-style team with a clear hierarchy and relentlessly pursue the goal of levelling up. I have never actually played this way because it seems like to opposite of fun.

Its generally accepted that almost no group of players anywhere has acted anything like this. (If you have, or did, feel free to comment below.)

So we accept that players will act in a way that stops them pursuing the most optimal goal. This is so obvious to state about RPG's that it's a cliche.

And the most effective way to oppose the players is to persistently try and kill them with whatever resources the imagined world can reasonably provide.

So there is a kind of abstract, absolute version of D&D kind of operating in the background as people play. One where ruthless, dedicated teams of highly focused players try to outwit deamonically clever DM's in order to advance in level.

None of my games are remotely like that. The players, in fact, play against themselves to a high degree and I play against myself. I tend use the dice to ground myself and make sure I'm not going too soft on players. I roll publicly so I'm not tempted to fudge. The dice want to kill you. They are like dogs I own. I don't want you to get hurt but the dogs are hungry and they have to have their chance.

And now a bit of Reinhold Niebuhr.

'hey girl'

But irony is something more than comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed on it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know it's own limits – in all such cases the situation is ironic. 

The ironic situation is distinguished from the pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it has some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution.

While a pathetic or tragic situation is not dissolved when a person becomes conscious of his involvement in it, an ironic situation must dissolve, if men or nations are made aware of their complicity in it. Such awareness involves some realisation of the hidden vanity or pretension by which comedy is turned into irony.”

Virtue becoming vice, strength becoming weakness through vanity, security transmuted into insecurity, wisdom becoming folly.

This sounds like every good game I've ever run or played in. In fact it sounds like the best parts of those games. The un-plannable aspects that make the game different to everything else.

But the situation does not dissolve. We continue regardless, in full awareness of the irony. We continue because of the irony, hoping for it, playing towards it. What is this?


  1. I think it all makes more sense if you see the xp/level up system (for the players) and the "foes just want to destroy you by the most efficient means" system as default or back up motivations for when neither party has a better idea.

    So it's not like there's an engine of play and a persistent refusal to engage it, it's more like there's a presumed but very polite engine of play that is totally willing to step out of the spotlight if any participant can think of a way they'd like to play that's more engaging to them at the moment.

  2. Maybe pursuing a goal by the shortest, most efficient path possible is the rpg equivalent of skipping to the end of a book.

    I'm tripping up on this irony thing. Do you mean that irony functions differently in rpgs because ironic situations do not dissolve when participants observe them? Is the irony an in game situation or is it something that exists between players?

    I think that applying Niebuhr's definition is conceptually kind of tricky because you have two sets of observers in two sets of situations. A bunch of people in a living room or whatever playing a game, and the elves and wizards and what have you in the dungeon they are all pretending is real.

    I have the funny feeling I am taking this too seriously. I think I am going to go outside.

    1. Don't worry, taking games too seriously is pretty much what every RP blog ever is all about.

      I was thinking mainly about the players (if i can correctly devine my own thinking from about 10 hours ago when i was knackered and about to go to bed)

      I think the thing that interested me most was the fact of things-always-going-wrong, then everyone realising this and having a good laugh about it, then the same people setting off to do almost exactly the same thing again.

      It seems unlike any other game I can think of in that much of the joy-of-game comes from not achieving the stated goals of the game. And knowing this, Ignoring it, and doing it anyway. Multiple times. I can't think of many other games like this.

      If there is a disparity between Niebuhrs analysis and my use of it, it's almost certainly my fault. The poor man had no idea I would be chopping up his thinking about world politics and gluing it to RPG's like bad Crafting.