Stanley Hauerwas is, as much as theologians ever are, famous. He’s written a lot about what the church should be as a community – and just as much about how consistently Christians have fallen short of the ideal – as well as on a whole host of ethical questions, from euthanasia to vegetarianism. On top of that, he’s a genuinely nice bloke, who – despite having no idea who I am – has courteously put up with my questions on the two occasions I’ve had a chance to speak with him.
Anyway, point is, a fairly common refrain of Stan’s is that modern culture – particularly modern American culture, with its creation myth of freedom and opportunity for all – puts far too heavy an emphasis on material achievement and, resultantly, on the need to be in control. The church – at least, most churches – has been just as guilty of this as other institutions; more so in some cases, less so in others. Hauerwas suggests that, rather than worrying about power, prestige, resources, and so on, we should worry more about living a good life; accepting in doing so that the results might not be most conducive to “getting ahead in the world.” (N. B. Anyone who’s done any philosophical study will recognise this as an ontological – and arguably teleological – ethic.)
It strikes me that a lot of the discussion between the OSR and players of Type IV D&D could be shoehorned into this meta-discussion about being “in control” or “out of control.” It’s not so clear-cut as that, and there are obviously degrees of variance within the respective communities, but broadly speaking I’d go so far as to say that the OSR’s love for player-led gaming and random tables suggests they’re a lot more comfortable with living out of control than Type IV players, with their meticulously balanced characters and carefully designed and rationed combat encounters. For the moment, I’m leaving Type III D&D out: in general, I think it goes with Type IV in this example, but (as later posts will reveal) the campaign I run is actually a stripped-down hack of D&D 3.x. What can I say: my first D&D experience was with 3.0, and although I’ve since learned a huge amount about gaming and DM’ing from the OSR community, I feel bound to stay faithful to ascending AC. I’m sure if I was the same age as my favourite bloggers – Jeff Rients, for example – I’d feel differently. What we experience in our lives and what we believe are, after all, intimately intertwined (I use “we” in the general sense, I’m not intimately intertwined with Jeff at present).
Which brings me to the reason I started this rambling post: random tables. It’s pretty well-established, at least among the old-school D&D community, that random tables are not hindrance but a major aid to a DM’s creativity. Why is this, though? After all, even on a d% table you’re looking at 100 options: your brain, wonderful lump of sinew that it is, can surely do better than that.
Well, probably not, no – not unless you’re another Borges, or perhaps the writer of a medieval bestiary. The thing is, just as much as your beliefs influence your actions (another Hauerwasian refrain being that we shouldn’t ask what to do, but rather who to be), your experiences shape your beliefs. (One thing I’d like to return to, in a more philosophy-heavy post, is what this means in relation to ideas about free will and autonomy: if you’re shaped by your experiences, can you really be said to be 100% “free”?) This is as true for creative activities like DM’ing as it is for one’s morality, ideology, spirituality, and so on. It’s no accident that the vast majority of fantasy literature is at most one step removed from Tolkien fan fiction: your experiences, including what you read, shape your creativity in ways which can be inspirational, but are just as often limiting.
Random tables, like this one or this one, are tools that help break free from these limitations, without restricting the helpful part of your own creativity. Make your roll(s) and you’ve got a loose outline for something to go into your campaign: but why, who, how, where, when and what that thing is doing in your campaign world in the first place is still up to you. Your prior experiences – particularly those experiences of gameplay in the campaign – work in harmony with the randomly-generated hook. Living out of control can be a liberating experience, with unexpected and energising results: in this case, the liberation is from one’s own creative limitations. Result! Plus, rolling dice is fun: I have a soft spot for this guy because the d12 doesn’t get anywhere near enough love.
In the next post, I’m going to continue this theme with a move which might well alienate half the people I want to talk to (although hopefully not): writing a set of random tables to help in running bible study groups! Alright, calm down; I warned you this was going to be a thrill ride.
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D&D ACRONYMS EXPLAINED:
AC – Armour Class. This determines how hard you are to hit. In earlier editions of the game, a lower number is generally better; in newer editions, a higher number is what you want.
d%, d12 – D&D uses a lot of funny shaped dice: the standard notation is a “d” followed by the number of sides the dice has. Most common are the d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and d% (i.e. d100).
Types III and IV, 3.x, 3.0 – different editions of D&D, and different ways of referring to them.