So I've been wanting to blog about this for a long time, and I'm pretty sure it's not something I've blogged about before. My topic for the day is the ways in which roleplaying is an art, or specifically the similarities between roleplaying and oral epic.
This has occupied my thoughts rather seriously for a while now, thanks to Richard Martin's class on epic, and I think it gets at one of the reasons I love roleplaying so much. The orality of the art form taps into what Blue Rose was saying the other day about the firstness of a performance being special. Oral performances, by definition, are always unique, first-time things. And really, it's the art or orality of roleplaying that occupies most of my thoughts when I think about roleplaying, even though I spend most of my time trying to balance rules and numbers (by necessity; I can't roleplay by myself).
One of the things that I think roleplaying shares with epic is the use of secondary genres. I think this might be a unique sharing; freestyle rap is (so far as I know) restricted to a single genre of performance. But the openings and interludes of a Phoenix Earth session are clearly different kinds of art because they're written (and therefore prepared beforehand), not improvised moment-by-moment. And the fact that they're literate rather than oral imposes different restrictions on them. Their descriptive power is greater, and their dialogue proceeds according to a different pace than orally-composed dialogue.
As in the case of the secondary genres which Dwight Reynolds records as part of the tradition of Sirat Bani Hilal poets in Lower Egypt, the secondary genres of a roleplaying session serve to set the tone and draw the audience in to the world of the epic itself. Literate openings are particularly conducive to this because my culture is not oral, and therefore my overall artistry is greater when I am composing literately than when I am composing orally. The opening effectively enhances the power of the subsequent oral performances. When an opening is bad, or absent altogether, it takes the players much longer to mentally drop into the world of the epic, and their performances clearly suffer for it. The latest Circle session provides a good example of this; Mr. Clean and I had a roleplayed (= oral) "prologue" bit that took place before The DM read his opening, and the quality of the roleplaying in the prologue piece was markedly inferior to the quality of the roleplaying immediately after the opening (and this was true even of players who hadn't performed at all that session prior to the opening, meaning that it wasn't just a question of "warming up").
Another secondary genre which roleplaying includes that is also very like Reynolds' experiences with modern-day Arab oral epic are the "bits of local color" that populate both genres. In Egypt a poet will discuss local trivia with the audience during breaks. He demonstrates thereby his masterful knowledge of the community's history and identities ("aren't you the grandson of so-and-so, who once ..."), and in so doing he asserts his place in that community. Much the same happens in a roleplaying session. Players will stop to discuss stories of past sessions, or even things unrelated to roleplaying that are tangentially related to events in the game. In so doing we assert our "idioculture," our private group identity which is known only to insiders. If a player can participate in these brief digressions, he has established that he is part of the group. It seems to me that this is essentially similar to the way in which a Bani Hilal poet establishes his identity as part of his community in Egypt through his performance of "bits of local color."
And in both cases, in fact, the performer views himself (and is viewed) as an outsider. The art of roleplaying is arcane. An outsider is likely to ask, "is that like Dungeons & Dragons?" or "is this with computers?" - questions which betray the interlocutor's ignorance of the most basic elements of the roleplayer's craft. Roleplayers in my experience are loathe to bring up the subject of their art in the presence of outsiders (even in contexts where we feel it would be both appropriate and enlightening, such as Prof. Martin's class). The way in which we speak of our games among ourselves is dramatically different from the evasive or even slightly condescending answers we are likely to give in response to an outsider's questions. The Bani Hilal poets are no different: societal outcasts, practitioners of a poorly understood craft, with a distinctly different way of speaking amongst themselves than among outsiders.
Then there are secondary oral genres within the main game itself. This is akin to, say, the praise-songs that poets sing to the Prophet in Egypt, or the similies in Homer: distinctly different genres of poetry, but still composed orally, that is, on the spot without prior meditation. The same sort of thing happens in roleplaying. During Modern Phoenix Earth, for instance, there was an instance when the party was split up, each with one NPC (= character I control). One group's NPC received a phone call from the other's, and I narrated the phone conversation for the benefit of one half of the party, so they could only hear "their" half. Later during the session we went back chronologically and played out the other group's actions during the same time period. This left me with the task of narrating the other side of the phone conversation, some forty or fifty minutes (in real time) after I had narrated the original half. Keep in mind that I didn't have any notes or cue-cards telling me what had gone on in that conversation, or what exactly had been said - just my memory of a series of responses along the lines of "okay ... mm-hmm ... really? No, don't do that ..." and now, on the spot, I had to reconstruct a complementary series. On this occasion my players looked at me expectantly: could I do it? Another similar situation came during the early days of Classical Phoenix Earth, at a hospitality feast of thrown by the orcish clan Follakir. During that feast I had an orc stand up and begin singing an epinician ode narrating the recent heroic deeds of one of the characters in the party. My players asked me what he was singing, and looked at me expectantly to see how well I could produce an orcish victory ode on the spot - even allowing for the fact that it would sound like a translation of poetry, since I don't actually speak orcish.
In both of these instances I had a limited degree of success, and my players applauded me for it. They recognized that the task was actually quite difficult, and the fact that I was able to succeed at all was a demonstration of my verbal virtuosity. This concern to show off one's virtuosity in the skill of composing on the spot is another thing that I think roleplaying shares with oral epic. DMs aren't necessarily expected to be completely oral (they have a much harder task, which incidentally means their orality is considered more skillful as well) but players are - a player must be able to produce dialogue and actions, on the spot, in character, and the more skillfully a player can do that the more his performance is admired.
A DM's orality is demonstrated by being able to produce in-character dialogue and actions for his various NPCs, but also in being able to improvise whole sections of plot (which is why his task is generally harder). This is like the way a real oral poet responds to his audience by gauging their interest level and altering the course of his tale accordingly - lingering on a detail they like (such as the way a royal horse is caparisoned), rushing through things they don't like, or even inserting whole new episodes. The difference is that in roleplaying the members of the "audience" are actually participants in the tale. My favorite instance of this comes from Apocalyptic Phoenix Earth, where the party decided (quite against both my wishes and my expectations) to go to Mars rather Israel. They were perfectly within their "rights" (i.e., the constraints of the genre of roleplaying) to do so, but it meant that all of a sudden I had to narrate what happened to them on Mars.
Now, the overarcing plot did indeed call for the party to go to Mars at some point - but not that point. I had three hours or so of session left to fill with a plot episode that I had given virtually no prior thought to. A skilled performance in my case, in this circumstance, would have had to accomplish three goals: a). to keep up the narrative pace without a stop that would make it obvious I was thinking; b). to narrate an interesting and dramatically satisfying three hours; c). to do so in a way that didn't do irreparable damage to the course of the long-term plot. Success in those three areas would show off my verbal virtuosity (because I could narrate at the same time as I was furiously thinking) as well as my mental virtuosity; that is, my command of my material. How well do I know 22nd century Mars? Can I draw on my latent knowledge of that world to craft an interesting episode?
My ability to do so would demonstrate my authority as a DM. A DM with authority is one who, by virtue of his command of the epic material, is able to draw his players into the world of the epic and give them a sense that this is all "real" (the way a good Michael Crichton or Dan Brown novel convinces you, through command of the material, that it's all possible). Besides command of his "epic" material (i.e., the stuff that he brings to reality, such as the character of the Martian colony) a DM should be able to speak authoritatively on the descriptive aspects of the world (i.e., the stuff that he inherits from reality, such as the geology of Mars).
Roleplayers share with listeners of epic, I think, a desire to see their tales as history or "real." What that really means is that they want to see their tales as plausible - every good epic must have poetic embellishments which we admit are fictitious or implausible. But we want to have a sense that beneath that there's a kernel of events that could have happened this way. The Bani Hilal could have (and did) migrated westward to Tunisia, and the older generation in Egypt still clings to the desire to see the Sirat Bani Hilal as history-with-embellishments. In roleplaying this kernel of possibility often takes the form of DMly authority on technical matters which are misunderstood. In Phoenix Earth, for instance, I have unusual authority on matters of military equipment. I understand, contrary to common fantasy belief, that real swords did not weigh ten pounds, and that even a four-pound sword is extremely, almost unwieldably, heavy (my Roman history professor perpetuated this myth to an entire class of undergraduates just last quarter, discussing the light swords of the Romans in contrast to the clumsy, heavy swords of Europeans - simply not true, as scholars ought to have known since Oakeshott). I understand what ancient catapults looked like and how they worked, which is not common knowledge. I go out of my way to look up the mechanics of horsemanship or herbology. Details like that give my narration a ring of truth which helps the players suspend their disbelief of the fantastic elements (such as magic).
The narrative style of roleplaying is also similar to the style of epic, in my opinion. One way in which this is done is being able to expand certain incidents with greater narrative detail (consider the description of, say, Achilles' shield). Another possibility is being able to use certain incidents as jumping-off points. In a traditional epic where the overall plot is fixed this would probably be done by inserting an episode "out of order," or referencing it when necessary (e.g., the "mythological" speeches in Homer where characters narrate other epic events which are somehow related to the current epic event). In roleplaying it's possible to "jump off" by completely altering the plot. For instance, in Apocalyptic Phoenix Earth one of my primary villains was killed very early on in the game (remember that the players' actions are not under my direct control). I altered the plot so that the villain showed up afterwards - or rather, other bounty hunters claiming to be him. Another similar example also comes from Apocalyptic Phoenix Earth, where one of my players, who had recently struck it rich, attempted to buy himself a starship. I was able to foil him by using the Black Horsewoman of the Apocalypse, thereby simultaneously foiling his attempt to increase his power beyond what I felt was reasonable and begin to reveal the powers of the Black Horsewoman. That event demonstrated one of the ways in which narrative skill is measured: my response would be considered skillful if the players couldn't tell whether it was pre-planned or not (my ability to fool them rests on two things: first, whether my face or voice betrays anything when I actually narrate the event; second, whether or not the improvised event fits seamlessly into the thematic and dramatic look and feel of the narrative). Oftentimes after a session my players have asked me, "so, how much of that was planned?" It's quite a compliment.
The last example of verbal virtuosity I want to discuss is simple acting skill. In certain cultures (such as ancient Greek) epic singers are supposed to act out their tales, doing voices, and so on. A skilled rhapsode, for instance, could bring his audience to tears - and his ability to bring them to tears was one of the criteria by which his skill was measured. The same is true of roleplaying; a DM should be able to do several accents and voices, and a skillful performance speaking in dialogue will demonstrate his ability to act in a wide emotional range.
Besides a common desire to demonstrate verbal virtuosity, roleplaying shares with epic a reliance on formula. This is commonly misunderstood as being constrained by fantasy "conventions." For those in the audience who don't know, prior to the work of Milman Parry early in the 20th century, Homer's repetitions were generally considered just that - repetitions, and sometimes clumsy ones. In fact, Parry demonstrated (and subsequent scholarship and comparisons with contemporary oral epic traditions have confirmed), an epic poem is composed of virtually nothing but formulas. A formula is more than the familiar repeated epithets; every half-line in an epic poem is a formula. In effect, an epic poet has learned to speak by combining thousands of half-line units in ways that meet the metrical requirements of his medium. A large part of his art is recombining these formulas in skillful ways.
The same is true of roleplaying, but our formulas are the fantasy "conventions" which we have inherited. These conventions are themselves attempts to artistically or anthropologically recast the essence of other epics and mythological material. For instance, dragons figure large in all Indo-European epics. The fantasy concept of "dragon" is an attempt to find the common ground. The same is true of basilisks, golems, and virtually every other fantasy creature ever (fantasy, as a genre, is one of the most multiculturally literate genres I know of). Reinterpreting monsters is a way of recombining formulas: for instance, everybody since Jason's day knows what a walking skeleton is supposed to be, but Phoenix Earth has found a way to make skeletons unique and scary.
Formulas pervade roleplaying just as they pervade epic; everything we do is formulaic. Our characters are formulaic: for instance, Grhaed Steelfist is a creative reinterpretation of the formula "dwarven barbarian/fighter." Faelis Khasii is a reinterpetation of the formula "creepy necromancer." And that in fact is too simplistic; each of those characters (and all my characters) are reinterpretations of several formulas which are then creatively fused (for instance, Grhaed is also a reinterpetation of the formula "brash young hero"). To a player who is conversant with roleplaying's formulaic system, the ways in which these characters are not stereotypical necromancers or dwarves are just as eloquent as the ways in which they are.
Moreover, the fact that they are formulaic means that their character is exhibited more than developed. Characters in epic can develop (e.g., I would argue, Achilles) but usually they don't. Their actions exist in a sort of atemporal soup which everybody is aware of, and which informs the audience's perception of the hero's character in an atemporal way: whether or not the hero has done X yet, the audience knows that he will. This is one of the facts that good epic can play off of, and it is one of the things that makes roleplaying in character possible. Because everybody knows that Grhaed is the "brash young hero/dwarven barbarian," the players have a benchmark to compare him to. If that formulaic benchmark were not there, it would be impossible to tell whether or not Grhaed's player were playing him skillfully. Because Grhaed is in some ways not the "brash young hero/dwarven barbarian" there is room for his player's performance to surprise and delight.
Significantly for comparison to epic, plot is also formulaic. You cannot go to an index of roleplaying plots and look them up, any more than you could ask a real epic poet to list for you his entire body of formulas, but the formulaic system is there nonetheless and can be accessed by (and almost only by) someone who has grown up immersed in the good, the bad, and the ugly of fantasy stories (one should remember at this point that there are bad epic poets who give bad epic performances, no less than there are bad fantasy storytellers who tell bad fantasy. What one should remember is that fantasy stories are not bad because they seem "conventional"). The plots come principally from previous fantasy stories (of all genres, literate and audio-visual as well as oral) and from world myth or ancient history. They are frequently original and "local" (e.g., the plot of Phoenix Earth, which is my independent creation) or commercial, but they are all formulaic and immersed in the body of conventions formed by what has been told before.
The issue of commercial games deserves to be mentioned because it provides a rare link to the kind of tradition that epic frequently has at its disposal. Everybody knows the plot of Sirat Bani Hilal; everybody knew the plot of the Trojan War. Nobody knows the plot of a local, homebrewed game like Phoenix Earth (except for my players, whom I deliberately gave a sketch of the overarcing plot to precisely for the purpose of having a common-knowledge tradition to work with). Ont he other hand, everybody knows (at least roughly) the plot of, say, the first three Dragonlance books (themselves written down after the events narrated within had been roleplayed orally). You can go out and buy books which contain full-fledged plot episodes, but those books will contain summaries of what happens along the way. It is up to the DM to expand those individual incidents into oral performance - and up to the DM to deal with it if his players depart from the plot laid down in the book. These books are identical across the world, but every performance of them is individual. No different from the "text" of Sirat Bani Hilal, which "everyone knows," but is different every time it is performed.
Society is another area for formulaic reinterpretation. For instance, the kioa and the elrasha in Phoenix Earth are reinterpretations of the formula "dark elves vs. good elves." If you depict an elf in fantasy, the informed audience will immediately start wondering where the dark elves are; that is formulaic. Phoenix Earth reinterprets that formula with a Christian twist. Our themes are formulaic: Phoenix Earth reinterprets the Tokienian theme of "evil as corruption," and all roleplaying reinterprets the age-old Indo-European theme of "the quest for undying fame." In fact, Reynolds' "heroic poets, poetic heroes" thesis could well apply to roleplayers: our characters tend to be social outcasts (as we ourselves perceive ourselves to be, at least when we take on our roleplaying personae) looking in some way to leave a mark on the world (which of course they succeed in doing, or else we wouldn't be telling stories about them).
Indeed, roleplaying has inherited more from earlier epics than just a desire to tell stories about heroes who long for undying fame. Dungeons & Dragons has perpetuated many fallacies about medieval equipment (e.g., ten-pound swords and forty-pound axes), but part of the reason those fallacies have lasted is that today's roleplayers have a desire to add a bit of Superman to their heroes. An age-old sign of heroism, dating all the way back to Homer's heroes, is the ability to wield the unwieldable weapon: the massive battle-pike that only Achilles could wield, the bow that only Odysseus could bend, the rock that Patroclus can wield with one-hand which would take two or more men today to even move it. We also inherit the concept fo magical healing from Homer: in the Iliad, Machaon's Bronze-Age medicines are supernaturally effective on Menelaus (for instance), because Menelaus has to be back in the fight in a time-frame which is incompatible with normal healing.
This comparison with ancient epics is fruitful too, I think, for helping to understand the role of the gods or magical weapons. In roleplaying, it is understood that magical items and supernatural powers devolve on a hero because he is a hero. They make him more effective, but they do not make him a hero. This is just a law of roleplaying that is implicitly understood by all. In the same way, Achilles is helped by Athena (or, if you want to take later versions of his story, invincible) because he is a hero. He is not a hero because he is helped by Athena/invincible; that is not the way the system works.