Friday, May 29, 2009

Maps of the Games: Conceptual Differences in Play

I love maps, as I may have mentioned before. I still have the world atlas I received in grade school. We got National Geographic for many years-- but I hardly read the articles. Instead I'd look at the maps. If they had a nice big pull out map I'd be happy. I'd check fantasy novels to see if they had maps-- part of what drove me to read the John Carter novels even though they were pretty bad. I recall fondly the Hyborean maps of Conan, the strange metaphorical roadmap of The Phantom Tollbooth, and even a strange sketch map of Yoknapatawpha County from Faulkner. My mom loved Faulkner and we had a prized set of paperbacks of his books in the front room as long as I could remember.

I had an Atlas of Fantasy for as long as I could remember-- I bought it I think two or three different times. My sister got a map of Middle Earth in a frame as a gift from a friend-- that person had hand drawn it from references. I remember a child's version of A Pilgrim's Progress, which I didn't understand, but loved for the bizarre map. Of course various games had great maps-- I hated TSR's method of hex mapping which made everything ugly and cluttered. I think if I'd had some mind to it, I might have done geography or cartography as a pursuit-- but I've never been able to draw very well and I didn't understand the field of geography could have larger social implications until much later.

I'm not one for meditation or formal exercises, but I will admits I have one trick I fall back on when I'm trying to relax, fall asleep, or pass time. I usually do a visualization exercise for some place I've been. I had a paper route for several years and I used to be able to chart in my mind not just that route, but also the layout of all of the houses on those blocks. Generally, I'll try to imagine myself walking in a particular building, home or area-- trying to get the general spatial relations in my head. The details aren't as important as the larger context of the space itself. I think that's part of why I have some affection for Las Vegas-- all of the buildings there have a strange enormous configuration. They baffled me even as I went around them and they form a labyrinth in my mind-- I can't quite fit all of the connections together.

Anyway, this relates to some things I've been thinking about in terms of rpgs. Kaiju picked me up a book from my wishlist called Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. He hits on a number of topics-- structure, intention, visualization, interaction for example-- and their relation to a narrative. I think the most obvious and interesting point of his discussion is that we each draw vastly different maps of experiences. I can't lay claim to any real grasp of Literary Criticism theory, but I am familiar with the basic idea of one approach called Reader Response. Stanley Fish wrote the the seminal book in this theory Is There a Text in this Class? He suggests that each reader interprets the experience of a text (in the broadest sense) differently, and that those readings derive from membership in “interpretive communities.” I don't know about the later, but the idea of the former and focusing some analysis on those varying readings strikes me as worth following up on.

The bottom line here being: each player in an rpg ends up with a very personal sense and reading of the course and form of a game. Yet at the same time, they're directly interacting with both the authority and creator of that text, in the form of the gamemaster, and with competing interpretive communities, in the form of other players. In this case I'm not talking about the discussion and back and forth between players about what to do next, the solution to a problem, or combat tactics. Rather the meta and often unstated sense of how a game text appears in one's mind, especially in retrospect-- who is the main character, what are the themes, what is the dramatic pattern...the bigger questions.

In some ways, the most interesting things arise from misreadings-- in the sense that the GM provides an incomplete text. It has to be incomplete by virtue of the player character's having their own volition. The GM cannot know with certainty how the players will react. Misreadings, contradictions, the unexpected, changes, all of these are juncture points between the texts, or maps, in the GM's mind and the player's. In some ways it would be interesting to have players write some kind of game summary mid-stream-- but I'm not sure that would really delve into things. We're too aware of the conventions of the back of a book cover-- unless perhaps you had them write that up with the idea that the book would actually be centered around their character. That might be a useful exercise.

But to circle around to my main point-- differing perceptions and expectations. I think the imaginings and visualizations of a game text vary strongly between players-- even in terms of what the map depicts. You could chart of map of the journey of the game chronologically, from beginning to end. Or you might focus on the geography of a place. Or on the interactions of plots. Or on the relations of people. Of course, I don't think players see things in these literal forms, but I do think they have a kind of perception that shapes their behavior, reactions and even how they look back on things which have happened before in the game.

And I think some player displeasure arises when the map they have in their head doesn't match up with the incidents at the table. Again we hit on expectations. There's the unusual stage here in that the GM is describing a world the players have no real experience with-- their interactions are colored heavily by the GM's words and their own expectations. There are exceptions-- obviously if you're running in an established setting (a historical period, a set and known fantasy universe, a real world place) then the player draws on some of that knowledge and the GM can make some assumptions about what the player knows. But that can also be a bad thing, especially if the GM's making changes-- at what point does the player's knowledge break down? There also the case of players having played within a particular campaign world before-- since I've run quite a bit in the same setting, I've seen this. How do you balance the knowledge and mental maps of previous players with those of new players? Or even more to the point-- I'm sure players come into my games generally with a picture of the play and structure of my game. I know when I play with a new GM OOH, I'm trying to get a sense of his play style-- what are the limits? What's the theme? Is there a theme? Should I pencil in this place, this point or event on my mental map-- is it a signpost or is it just a throwaway thing? I'm trying to assay the geography of the survey the realm of play.

Now, I want to tie that into something the rpg writer Robin Laws said on his LJ yesterday. He was talking about Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane character, and his divided self. And I apologize for the extensive quotation, but I think it is worth it:

Kane is an interesting iconic hero in that Howard repeatedly describes him as having a dual nature. The exact meaning of this split drifts a little from story to story. To the extent that he examines his actions at all, he believes himself to be a simple man obedient to Puritan virtues. His true nature, explains the omniscient narrator, is a reckless, obsessive pursuer of adventure. This notion of the divided self is a surprisingly sophisticated one for a blood and thunder pulp hero.

On first thought, this seemed to me to be something we don’t often see in roleplaying. People create simple characters and attempt to stick to a clear conception of what they will and won’t do. But in fact we see it all the time—though rarely intentionally. Players often describe their PCs as having one set of motivations, and perceive them according to the assertions they make about them. Yet to the GM and everyone else at the table, who see only the character’s actions, the PC appears to be quite a different person. Most often, the self-conception is nobler than the actuality.

You could look at this as a bug: the player isn’t living up to the markers he set down when creating the character. In practice, though, it adds layers, and thus reality, to the character. He becomes as complicated and self-contradictory as a real person.

This dynamic, in which an unconscious tension between the author’s intention and result adds interest to the story, may be unique to roleplaying. Kane’s divided self because Howard meant to make him that way. In fiction an author’s lack of insight into his characters never ends well.

I think one thing to consider then, is the road map we as players give to the other players and to the GM. The difference between how we picture the character in our mind versus how they actually appear to other players. I had a problem with this in one of Derek's games, where I had a conception in my head, but my play and communication with the others didn't match this. I recall Barry's character Basho, and that of a few others in the past, where their characters did things, adopted attitudes, and spoke in ways that I could only read as being deliberately obnoxious, stupidly over angsty, petulant and so on. However, in talking with the players, it became clear that they didn't self-describe themselves as this. But more importantly, they didn't read that behavior as coming off like that. I think that's a difficult and important job for the GM-- trying to get a sense of how a character pictures themselves and then reconciling that with how they actually play at the table.

I'm over my limit, but I may come back to this. I'd like to talk about character reads on groups (like Scott and I and our continuing debate on the Elves), why I don't run people's characters when they're not there, overprotectiveness of a conception versus uncaring play, bodyswitching, finding ways to love the PCs, and considerations of parody. Perhaps I'll even provide specific examples and signpoints rather than this airy meta-talk.