Gaming with the Anthropological and the Mythic

Grandfather Tolkien tells us that Elendil and his sons after founded kingdoms in Middle-earth; and though their lore and craft was but an echo of that which had been ere Sauron came to Númenor, yet very great it seemed to the wild men of the world. And much is said in other lore of the deeds of the heirs of Elendil in the age that came after, and of their strife with Sauron that not yet has ended (The Silmarillion). Heady stuff, for certain, and tone-setting for the rest of the Legendarium. The tone is Biblical-Homeric, epic, grandiose, and laced with meaning and the portents of Great Prophecized Things That’ll Happen and Be Important. It is deeply mythic.

In the Player’s Guide to Thyatis, part of the Mystara ‘canon’, Aaron Allston tells us: With northern expansion stalled by Alphatians, in the sixth century AC the Thyatians began moving west. They bypassed the Minrothad islands and gloomy Traladara to take the pretty Ierendi islands. Initially, they established only prison colonies on these islands, which were already inhabited by halflings. But later, as the Alasiyan conflicts with Alphatia heated up, they seized all these islands and the halflings’ lucrative shipbuilding industry there. This account is somewhat informal. It has the air of a semi-sarcastic teacher discussing a favorite historical subject over coffee with a friend or favorite pupil. Great glorious things aren’t really present here. Rather, things are caused by concern for things like prison colonies, economy of war, and ‘pretty islands’.

If we call the first tone ‘mythic’, I would argue that ‘anthropological’ is a “good enough” term for the other. In this context, let’s take it to refer to a way of viewing history and the world that is not informed by mythic undertones or cosmological struggles of meaning and power, but rather by the very human, very mundane, and often very banal pressures of a material reality inhabited by imperfect creatures. In the mythic register, there is usually not a lot of heed paid to the economic realities of, say, fishing or manufacturing. What matters is the will to the Right Thing, and the punishments meted out for doing the Wrong Thing. In the anthropological register, the minutiae of a kingdom’s amber trade is not an incidental detail – it is potentially the crux of an entire world-changing conflict! The mythic tone is, broadly speaking, occupied with units of meaning that transcend the immediate physical and social reality.

These tones aren’t mutually exclusive in the least. Most fantasy has a little from column A, and a little from column B. We’re dealing with a very fluid genre, tone-wise. Where things become thorny is the how it fits in with roleplaying games.

In an earlier post, I let out some thoughts on the nature of spirituality in gaming, and I made a point that I’m going to stick to: Roleplaying games are, by and large, best at modelling and playing out scenarios with a high degree of physical and/or social kinetics. A character acts, the world reacts, begin loop. Roleplaying’s classic question is “What do you do?”, not “What are you philosophizing about?”, and with good reason.

The mythic tone tends to be a poor fit for this. Mythology tends to impart lessons, to expound upon the nature of the world, and to support at least some semblance of ordered thinking. The imperfections (glorious imperfections!) and emergent nature of the roleplaying medium rarely supports the tonal universe of a classical epic, unless specifically designed to emulate it – and even then, a game like AGON is concerned with the Odyssey-esque series of adventurous encounters rather than with the Grand Fate of the World. AGON focuses on the most roleplaying-friendly aspect of that type of narrative: The obstacles and challenges solved by action.

Does that make the mythic tone useless to roleplaying? Emphatic no! But we can consider ways to use it well or use it poorly.

Tonal consistency is important to any game, but especially to long-running campaigns. There simply needs to be a shared understanding inside the group that certain things can be expected to work in certain ways. (In general, I think tone is an underappreciated facet of this discussion – which is understandable, as tone tends to be emergent depending on individual group composition.) One of my gripes with a lot of D&D, and not just modern D&D, is tonal confusion. Is this a sword-and-sorcery style hero romp, or is it about about Champions of Good fighting Champions of Evil? Is Forgotten Realms a setting based on realpolitik or on mythologized archetypes? Is the moral high ground a viable thing to defend, or is everything merely subject to the whims of fate? D&D offers no solid stances on these questions out of the box, and in a sense that’s great – it allows the group to find their own answers and let their own universe emerge. But I find that the noncommittal nature of mainline D&D can be grating, and it has been an issue since the TSR days.

Not to say that tonal whiplash can’t be a powerful tool. Emmy Allen wrote a brilliant essay in Knock! Issue 1 called ‘Leaving Kansas’, emphasizing the power of the mundane-fantastical contrast in gaming. The OSR idea of the ‘mythic underworld’ taps into similar themes. At the heart of this philosophy is a fascination with discovery and encounters with the fantastical, and this dynamic rather needs a mundane, less fantastical aspect to work. And because Emmy Allen is a genius at tone, her works The Gardens of Ynn and The Stygian Library powerfully illustrate how tonal and aesthetic contrast can aid the experience of exploring another dimension or plane of existence.

Judd Karlman has multiple times on his podcast Daydreaming About Dragons espoused the view that a lot of good fantasy stories can arise from taking a fantastical concept and extrapolating mundane questions from it. And here is one of the most useful ways we can incorporate the mythic with the anthropological. If the Spring-and-Autumn Kingdom must change monarch every six months, what happens when that fails? How can it be rectified? What laws exist around such frequent change of ruler? The trick is to keep these concepts and questions within a cognitively reasonable area; too high a concept and too many accommodations makes the setting inscrutable and impenetrable. Ask just enough questions for that mythic, mighty idea to seem more grounded and real, and you’re good to go.

2 thoughts on “Gaming with the Anthropological and the Mythic

  1. I confess that I rarely ask any mythic questions about campaigns I run these days. It may be a reflection of my own philosophical materialism, or a response to years and years of watching the light die in players’ eyes if I should ever stray into exposition, but I think most of all it’s because I too like discovering worlds in play. Most of us live lives deeply affected by the mythic and the material and yet moment to moment never ask questions about either. We live nonetheless. Stop telling me about the gods, Thomas, and tell me the bloody goblin’s armour class! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good points! In practice, a lot of this stuff is secondary, or even tertiary, or even non-issues. Except if the goblin’s AC was decided by the Cosmic Balance, of course! 😉

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