Experience Points: The Dungeon Master as Poet

(first part of an essay in progress)

Neither of these guys is Rutger Hauer.

Geeks today rule the world. But to be a nerd or a geek twenty years ago was to be a marginal figure, as demonstrated by such period pieces as Revenge of the Nerds. Disappointed or frustrated by the limited social options presented to us, my fellow gaming nerds sought participation in a social world that from the outside seemed limited to ourselves, though it was in fact one of many coterie subcultures thriving and sometimes overlapping at that time. Such a coterie was, and remains, a society in search of transcendence. Gaming was an open door to experiences that the real world had seemingly foreclosed, either out of sheer mundanity (life in a cubicle) or because its experiential rewards (sex, money, power) seemed to have been reserved for the jocks and cheerleaders who were best adapted to that world. Role-playing games were for me, for us, our "systematic derangement of the senses"; they cleansed the doors of perception the way drugs did for our parents. 

From adolescence on I was addicted to Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games (I still play occasionally). Most fantasy RPGs are a form of pastoral. Not only is the pseudo-medieval setting deeply conservative and feudal in its structure, but the rules themselves offer the players a kind of refuge from the real world's bewildering complexities. As William Empson observed, pastoral is always a simplification, and there's a clean and elemental quality to the rules and tables and dice rolls that compose a gamer's environment. Social interactions, in real life so complex and unpredictable (and generally unsatisfactory, particularly when it came to girls), were here quantified: if you had a Charisma score of 18 you were eminently likeable and you had the die-roll bonuses to prove it. The world of the game is highly coherent, not to say overdetermined: good and evil are clearly defined, and you can always kill monsters with a clean conscience (your friends too: if your character was "Chaotic Evil," say, you could backstab your buddies and then point to your alignment, as in the fable of the scorpion and the frog: "It's my nature!").

Most often my role was that of the Dungeon Master: the referee and chief storyteller of the game. Each player has a single role to play, as warrior or wizard, etc., while the DM plays everyone else: innkeepers, wenches, orcs, dragons, etc. I loved planning and prepping for games almost more than I enjoyed playing them, and spent countless hours in my room drawing maps on graph paper or writing up descriptions of the political systems of imaginary nations. When I got the chance to run a game, I usually ended up frustrated by my few players' inability to take the game world as seriously as I wanted them to; to try and hold their attention I'd shower their characters with gold and magic items in classic "Monty Haul" fashion. The actual games never lived up to the games in my imagination, but I persisted in playing them, because once in a while there would come a glimmer of that intensity, that heightened sense of life, that I craved, and that my everyday existence as a shy, pimply, unathletic, bookish beta male almost never provided.

Things changed dramatically in college, where I met a group of gamers as passionate as I was, brought together by our addiction to a new game called "Breakout." It was a homebrew ruleset and campaign created by my friend Josh Wright, who was probably the closest to an actual adventurer that I had met up to that time (the son of a well-known archeologist he had already done time at digs in Egypt and India; nowadays he himself is a landscape archeologist who specializes in Outer Mongolia). Breakout was more fluid and unusual in its concept and playing style than any game I'd encountered before. Not only could the player characters come from any setting, but the settings in which our adventures took place were constantly shifting, often without warning, from one moment to the next. Some of the player characters were of familiar D&D stock--fighters, magic-users, thieves, etc.--but we also had in our party 1940's-style private detectives and mystical gunslingers and a Catholic farmgirl from turn-of-the-century Texas and a Japanese anime character and the economist Paul Volcker (played by a prospective econ major with wild enthusiasm for Volcker’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve—as I recall, his version of Volcker wielded a quarterstaff with surprising effectiveness). Sometimes we operated in a typically pseudo-medieval fantasy world, but there were other times we found ourselves on a spaceship on the fringe of a dying galaxy or in a Middle American supermarket that was under attack by zombies. It all seemed to make sense at the time, for we felt ourselves to be advancing along the lines of a classic good vs. evil plot that was also about--not just about, it was--the creation of the game universe itself. Terry Gilliam's 1981 film Time Bandits does the best job of any film I can think of conveying what it felt like to play.

Still from Time Bandits (1981)

One of Josh Wright's mantras, frequently on the lips of the various non-player characters we encountered, was Free your mind and your ass will follow. Sometimes, having passed various tests within the game--sometimes tests we didn't realize we were taking--our adventurers would find ourselves translated from one world to the next, just as the dwarfs in Time Bandits find themselves tumbling from one cosmic locale to another with the aid of their mystical Map. Sometimes transcendence of a given locale took the form of rescue and escape. Sometimes we were catapulted into greater peril, even insanity and horror (H.P Lovecraft and Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu made up a significant portion of Breakout's DNA). As in life our choices mattered, but the results were unpredictable and sometimes we felt ourselves to be caught up in a pattern that we could never fully comprehend. It was a game of riddles and hints and enigmas--every session Josh handed out a "quote sheet" of cryptic sayings collated from pop culture and past sessions that suggested the theme or arc that we would try to follow or bend for that day. Sometimes we tried to force things, translating the level of confrontation from characters in the gaming world to player versus game master. The results were generally disastrous results; as Alfred North Whitehead notes in Process and Reality, "Insistence on birth in the wrong season is the trick of evil." But birth is still birth, and it was possible to suffer death and defeat within the context of the game and yet believe, as one could not quite believe of mundane actuality, that such suffering would be redeemed by the ongoingness of the story. (Besides, one could always roll up another character.)

Breakout was, in short, different from Dungeons and Dragons and the other role-playing games I'd played. The rules, cobbled together from half-a-dozen different sources and from Josh Wright's own mind, were always evolving. There were no alignments and the morality of our actions and those of our foes were often murky. If you wanted to charm the snake priestess into releasing you from bondage, you couldn't just make a Charisma roll, you had to act it out. And the world itself was constantly shifting under our feet: our adventures were enjambed, a collage of whatever struck us as cool that week (some of the predominant influences of that time and place: Japanese anime, especially AkiraHighlander; Stephen King's Gunslinger novels; John Carpenter films, especially those starring Kurt Russell; William Gibson; The Terminator and Conan the Barbarian; Terry Gilliam movies; Alan Moore; etc, etc.). As game master, Josh Wright was the ultimate arbiter of the rules and the world, but we as players had considerable influence on how the game was played and on the evolution of its world. It was a story we told together that was sometimes more compelling than real life. (Okay, it was almost always more compelling than real life. My college transcript will attest to this.)

For a few decisive years, Breakout was life: life lived with intensity, vividness, transcendence. Not the brute transcendence of the adolescent power fantasy, or not completely so, but the transcendence of adventure. The root of the word is the Latin advenire (to arrive) and adventurus (about to happen), and it is very close to the idea of becoming. I began playing with a lot of resistance to this idea, actually. I spent hour upon hour creating characters in Josh Wright's dorm room, dreaming up idealized and magical personae for myself, with complex backstories that I typed up on my Mac SE and presented to Josh, who would receive them with an ironically lifted eyebrow. He understood, as I did not yet, that I was thinking like a D&D player, or a writer of fantasy fiction. Breakout was something else. The game world did not exist to ratify my fantasies; in fact, my elaborately designed heroes more often than not met absurd or humiliating ends.

Gradually I came to understand that Breakout wasn't like fiction, and that the most interesting characters were formed not by my mind working on its own but in the course of their adventures, which were after all as real as any of my other experiences in the sense that they were shared, the warp and woof of our little misfit society. Which was more meaningful: the backstory in my own mind or the actual adventure shared with comrades which we could then discuss and argue over in the days and weeks that followed? The spirit of adventure, of letting things come, ruled Breakout. As with the ancient alchemists, the acquisition of gold was not the true point: the gold was a virtuality. The success of the character or alter-ego that I used was not an end in itself, but a vehicle for transformation. The quest of the player had the same object as all Romantic questing, whether that looks like Percival seeking the Grail, Dante seeking Beatrice, or Scott Pilgrim taking on the world: more life.

What did Josh Wright get out of it all? I suppose I could just ask him, but I suspect the satisfaction he took in Breakout was not dissimilar to the satisfaction of any creative artist. But there was something particularly poetic, I think, more than fictive, in his style of gamemastering, in which language--the language of the rules, the language that accrued between us, with its many layers of reference--took on the form of action rather than representation, and which changed constantly, ramifying rather than linear. A kind of telling that in-formed us and our characters, that converted experience into selfdom; what Whitehead calls "the superject": the subject who is created by his experiences. Josh, who ran the game for two different groups (he called us "the Right Hand"; the Left Hand were his high school friends), got to be something like Whitehead's conception of God, created as Game Master by the collective prehension of the diverse elements of the game world, the only one with a complete view of everything it had become. As a poet becomes a poet by writing, by opening himself to the adventure of the poem.