You’re woken from your slumber by the piercing cries of a man in agony and the splintering of wood. The room is dark, though the glowing embers in the grate cast a dull glow across rapidly moving shapes. All about you is pandemonium: guttural panicked sounds of man and beast.
Its stench strikes your attention before you realize it’s stood beside you but in the fire’s dying glow you can see the heft of a large arm reaching out to grab you.
Roll for initiative.
This word—usually translated as “listen”—marks the opening of Beowulf, one of the rarest surviving stories in Anglo Saxon. In fact, the 3000-line heroic epic was only discovered during the cataloguing of survivors of the eighteenth century library fire that nearly destroyed the single extant copy.
Yet it is as unlikely that it survived as it had even been written down in the first place. Trained scribes were not cheap. Paper didn’t exist (Beowulf is hand-written on calf-skin parchment). People couldn’t read. But they could listen.
This meant that narratives developed under a culture of storytelling: an oral tradition where tales were spoken and sung. Poets would travel from place to place, performing their favourite stories for disparate audiences, learning of new stories and honing their performance through subsequent retellings. Though skilled, the poet was not an artist—these were not her stories, these were just the stories she told.
Over time, the stories would evolve: through mutating multiple tellings, through hundreds of different poets telling their preferred versions, through tangents and flourishes loved by the home crowd. Different versions of the same story would cross paths and cross-pollinate. The story lived—a memetic, quantum entity not to be enslaved in pen and ink.
Yet every so often, someone would invest the great resources of time and expense to have one of these stories written down. This facsimile was a mere moment in time, like the photograph of a ghost departing. Several manuscripts might tell the same story but they have each been captured in different places, in different times. The words, the phrasing, the structures even, are ever so slightly different: uncanny doppelgangers of their own mirror image.
One of the best examples of this is Sir Orfeo—a medieval retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, replete with otherworldly fairy king and machinations of court politics. Three distinct manuscript versions exist and while each pair shares nigh-identical features, it is clear that none of them are directly related. In fact, it’s my opinion that J. R. R. Tolkien’s greatest work is his version of the “perfect” Orfeo: an ur-text to father the others.
Today, the brand of authority is everywhere. Even in the field of writing where the listener is most likely to retell it herself—that of comedy—there is still a thorough sense of parental ownership in the creation of jokes. Joke theft is viciously decried.
It would seem that oral culture has died, selectively bred into extinction. But I believe it still lives. Around the gaming table, its ballads are sung to the clatter of falling dice.
Tabletop roleplay is difficult to directly compare to other media. Usually, a number of players will each take on the role of a single character, the same way an actor assumes a role in a play. Another player becomes everything else, as a stage manager might control the set design and the stage directions, as a director might direct the responses of the extras. Unsurprisingly, this more complex role is often titled the Games Master, or Dungeon Master, or Keeper, or Referee, or whatever is canonical to the game at hand.
But where a traditional play is intended to be performed to an audience, a roleplaying session is like an improvised radio play where the actors are its audience.
Late last year, Paradox Interactive bought White Wolf Publishing—the house behind the monolithic World of Darkness roleplaying games. The series had begun in 1991 with Vampire: the Masquerade, and although I’ve never played it myself, its cover of a single resplendent red rose on a stark field of verdant mausoleum marble sticks firmly in my mind. While not as old as Dungeons & Dragons (itself having recently published its fifth core edition), White Wolf’s systems and mythologies remain some of the most popular properties in roleplay publishing.
Within six weeks of owning White Wolf, Paradox rebranded their current line. Fair enough, the distinction between classic World of Darkness and new World of Darkness was somewhat unwieldy. Now called Chronicles of Darkness, it not only shows their lineage but also implies an increased importance on the stories told.
It’s around gaming tables that these Chronicles will manifest: using the patterns and shorthand taught by the books, recognized by the people who have never read them.
Barely a fortnight into 2016, Wizards of the Coast announced the DMs Guild. It’s an in-house marketplace for Dungeons & Dragons players to create and sell their own material using controlled D&D intellectual property. This would allow Dungeon Masters to use some of the game’s more iconic creatures, such as the displacer beast or the beholder, while providing them safety from the company’s more perilous creatures: its legal team.
Rather than merely providing a platform for crowdsourcing of ideas, Wizards are shining a beacon to all players of the game with the DMs Guild. Pulling together as many story seeds as they are able could considerably catalyze the narrative potential that thrives within an oral culture.
Relatedly, one of the biggest elements of the medieval oral culture—especially when we see its evidence in the poems that have been written down—is that the audience of the story is a considerable driving force behind its evolution. The same is true when it comes to tabletop role-playing games. It might appear obvious on the surface considering the improvised telling of a collaborative story. After all, the compact audience are directly making choices about the protagonists’ interaction with the world. Yet the structures of the game systems themselves promote a deeper, subtler shaping of the audience interests.
Any different group will have its own preferences regarding the elements of play: a preference for sneaking over combat, for political posturing over wilderness exploration. The elements that the players are less interested in can be increasingly abstracted, dealt with by the whim of a dice roll in the wings—the critical fumble that led to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death in Hamlet (1603), for instance. The elements that players are more interested in will be foregrounded in play. Not only does this happen through overt choice, but the increased attention will iteratively improve the players’ skill and invariably lead to more challenges of a similar sort.
The ways in which both tabletop games and orally-transmitted stories evolve by audience interest plays along an interesting interstice between flexibility and freedom. Inasmuch as the stories shift based on local interest, they do so by adhering to remarkably regular forms. This exploration of form is something that has remained a mainstay of poetry until modern times. That applies even when shifts in fashion are taken into account, such as how the 1066 invasion of England meant the French style of rhyming couplets pushed the alliterative English form outwards and upwards. Creativity stems from the boundaries enforced by formulaic restriction.
It’s a careful line to tread. In role-playing adventure design, one of the greatest sins is that of “railroading”—i.e. restricting player agency to a choice of forwards or stop. Yet some of the strongest designs come from deftly playing with a classic structure. Innovation and originality stand clear in the shadows of a familiar space.
The structures of roleplaying and of oral culture themselves are also echoed at sentence level. If you read a lot of Chaucer, you’ll find the phrase ‘for the nones’ crop up with regularity. Verbally it means ‘did you know,’ but linguistically it mostly exists to carry the meter of the line—to settle the rhythm and enable the rhyme. Similar verbal cues occur in roleplaying. From reference to character statistics like Humanity to instructions to players to ‘make a pull’ or ‘roll for initiative,’ these cues serve to ease the transition between the primarily narrative-driven aspects of the telling and the mechanically-powered parts of the story. The common tongue of stock phrases ushers the change of focus, interrupting without interfering.
But above all, medieval fiction and the stories derived from it have an intense awareness of their past, a thorough understanding of their own nature. Promoting the unobtrusive self-aware elements of oral culture in tabletop roleplaying will provide better sessions, better stories. At the very least, it helps to be conscious of the connection between the style of story and its strengths.
Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings (1954) to provide a modern mythology that he felt had been lost with the dwindling oral culture of his beloved medieval era. Tabletop roleplaying began by attempting to retell stories like The Lord of the Rings. But rather than simply reinvigorating the heroism of Tolkien’s tales and the idiosyncrasies of his cultures, it has breathed new life into a pattern long thought lost. It’s revived an oral culture.
Canterbury Tales image via Wikimedia
D&D image via Youtube
Orfeo image via Wikimedia
Campfire image via Flickr