Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Response to Josh Parker

A couple of weeks ago, a certain Josh Parker (who blogs here) posted a number of interesting comments to which I'd like to reply.  However, there was simply too much there for me to respond to in the comments section.  Therefore, I'm collecting all of his comments and my responses into a single post.

Before you read this, you may want to jump up to speed by reading these previous posts:

The State of Fantasy in 1977
Fantasy: 1977 to 1989
Fantasy: 1990 to 2000.  The Age of Doorstops and Gimmicks.
Fantasy: 1999 to 2011.  Disillusionment and Nihilism.
Fantasy: 1977 to 2011.  Wrapping it All Up.
"Realism" and Nihilism in Contemporary Fantasy
On Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara

So, I'm going to jump directly in, here.
I know I'm quite late to the game here, but I must comment on a couple of things: 
First of all, the attitude expressed by Lagomorph Rex is, in my opinion, exactly why fantasy refused to grow for so many years and why brilliant authors like David Gemmell and Glen Cook weren't really celebrated until their definitive works were several years old. 
Throughout the 80's, we were subjected to a number of standard-issue fantasy fiction which, while few were the abject rip-offs that The Sword of Shannara was, nonetheless followed a certain mold and refused to break out of it. This is what gained fantasy much of its poor reputation. 
Rex seems to want more of this; for the genre to stay as it was when he was a boy and never grow beyond that. Assuming that's true, it is an attitude that I as a fantasy reader and hopeful some day fantasy author, simply cannot stomach.
I like Lagomorph Rex but I will agree with you entirely here.  Yet let's not pretend, here, fantasy has always been full of pastiche.  Ron Edwards' discussion on Narrativism as a role-playing method discusses pastiche pretty well:

What happens when you want a story but don't want to play with Story Now? Then the story becomes a feature of Exploration with the process of play being devoted to how to make it happen as expected. The participation of more than one person in the process is usually a matter of providing improvisational additions to be filtered through the primary story-person's judgment, or of providing extensive Color to the story. Under these circumstances, the typical result is pastiche: a story which recapitulates an already-existing story's theme, with many explicit references to that story. 
Is pastiche necessarily bad and evil? No. Is non-pastiche necessarily incredibly good? No. 
Here's a little dialogue between me and one of the first-draft readers of this essay: 
Jesse: Now we come to a point of personal confusion. Pastiche. I still don't get it, in any medium. If the Situation involves "...class conflict, people being trapped by their social position, repressed romance..." and the GM lets the players resolve it anyway they like, then how is that not Narrativist? 
Me: It is Narrativist. What you're describing is not pastiche, or more clearly, it typically does not produce pastiche. The key is the "resolve it any way they like" part. 
Jesse: Similarly if I'm writing a story and I make a check-list of items I feel like I "need" to include to tell the "kind of" story I want to tell, and I have a character experience and resolve those things, then how have I not written a new story? 
Me: You have. What you're missing is that pastiche does not do this at all - instead, it references existing works in order to re-invoke what they, originally, provided for the reader/viewer, rather than doing it on its own. Die Hard is an outstanding movie. Passenger 57 stinks on ice. Why? Because Passenger 57 is only enjoyable if it reminds you, successfully, of Die Hard. Same goes for Broken Arrow, Con Air, and a slew of similar films. [Disclosure: I do enjoy many of these films, on the basis of the "reminder" alone. - RE] 
And it's not a matter of "who does it first." Die Hard works because it nails its Premise, with the explosions and one-liners all being supportive of that goal. The other movies fail to provide Premise of their own, merely using the explosions and one-liners to remind you of Die Hard, and by (putative) extension, tapping into Die Hard's Premise through association alone.
If you can see past the discussion of role-playing, it is actually quite a good, if indirect, explanation of what pastiche is by explaining what pastiche does.  It is imitation, ultimately referential to a previous work, and it ultimately fails when it is all reference and imitation without any of the real exploration of theme and premise.

Why does The Lord of the Rings succeed so well?  It nails that sense of lacrimae rerum--tears for things that exist no more, a sentiment similar to Japanese mono no aware.  Though Sauron is defeated, the world loses its mystery and magic, the Elves leave for the Undying Lands to the West, and Middle-Earth is less unique and special.  Frodo is traumatized by his experiences--especially (and this is something everybody seems to miss) having failed to surrender and destroy the Ring.  He returns home to the Shire but at the same time he cannot ever return to who he was and how he was because, like Gollum, the Ring was forcibly taken from him.  (Samwise doesn't suffer so because he willingly parted with the Ring.)  Even the Shire experienced the trauma of the War of the Ring under Saruman's occupation.  Victory had a terrible price but the price was better than defeat.  Nevertheless, the world will never be the same.

The Sword of Shannara doesn't really capture any of these things.  Shea and Flick Ohmsford return to a Shady Vale that is no wiser about the wider world or the tragic events that shook kingdoms to the North.  Nothing really changes--the Dwarves and Elves continue on as before.  As an adventure, the story still works--it is definitely readable and enjoyable but not sublime.  It is pastiche that succeeds because it addresses the very basic concepts and premises of what an adventure is and what a hero needs.  Terry Brooks doesn't really go any further than that, though.

Brooks is not alone.  Pulp fantasy is full of slavish imitations of Robert E. Howard.  A lot of Michael Moorcock's early Elric stuff is Conan with the career path reversed and angst added.  Indeed, a lot of Michael Moorcock's stuff is great but also a lot of it is drivel (the Runestaff series, for example).  How much of L. Sprague de Camp's Conan stories are failures as Howard imitation?  (How many of them are shameless rewrites of Howard stories to shoehorn Conan into the lead role?)  Is R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt just an Elric with a different skin-color and a somewhat more tragic backstory?

Regardless, I am really digressing here.  I wanted to describe pastiche and establish how pulpy Appendix N stuff often falls into the pastiche pile to give some degree of perspective.  Fantasy has always had a rather poor reputation, especially when compared to the grand futurism and thought-experiments being written by the likes of Asimov, Sturgeon, Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke, and Ellison.  The pulps did a lot to create this reputation, I think, but the post-1977 surge of Tolkien pastiche didn't help.  In fact, all that Tolkien pastiche made it worse and the massive outpouring of TSR Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novels largely sealed

The problem with people in general is that when they run into something they really like, they don't want it to ever end.  I used to be just like this--when I first read The Lord of the Rings in third grade, I cried when it was over.  When I found Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan, I was overjoyed that I could dive into adventure and fantasy again.  I was too young to really understand what was wrong or what was missing.  Now, I have problems with the never-ending story that doesn't resolve.  It is why I have lost interest in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  It is also why I have serious reservations about Tad Williams' announced return to writing about Osten Ard with a sequel to Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.  Television shows like Lost demonstrate perfectly the tremendous flaw in having a story that doesn't resolve.

Let's point out what Simon said about recommending Tolkien's readers to Circle of Light. What he meant about that being a "portent of worse things to come", he was referring to the maddening tendency by fantasy publicists to place somewhere on the cover of their latest epic fantasy some quote that seems to suggest the novel can be compared to The Lord of the Rings. Every WOT novel once had the inane quote "Jordan has begun to dominate the world that Tolkien began to reveal" plastered on the cover. Authors as diverse as David Gemmell, George RR Martin and Scott Lynch have all been compared to Tolkien, usually by way of praise. "The greatest epic fantasy since The Lord of the Rings!" "(Author) has the same sort of epic storytelling capability of Tolkien", etc.
You know what, I can see that.  It is something I certainly missed and it actually accentuates how bad the problem we're discussing here is.  It reflects the appeal that a return to Middle-Earth represents and I will be honest, these taglines worked on me.  From a marketing standpoint, it was brilliant of the Del Reys.  However, they're business-people.  They're not critics and haven't demonstrated much appreciation for art.  This is an interesting problem because it brings in the overall struggle between art-as-a-business and art-for-the-sake-of-art, a struggle that is as old as artists have sought patronage.

I don't want to read the new Tolkien. I don't want to read another Eddings. I don't want to read the spiritual successor to Donaldson. I want to read the next (name of author). Just as I don't want musicians I enjoy constantly compared to the Beatles (and they never are), I don't want to read Abercrombie or Lawrence or Brett and feel like they've got to be conforming to some mold set down by an author before them.
No disagreements here.  I grok you.  Given you're punctuation (quotation marks inside the period/full stop instead of outside, for example), I imagine you are not an American and probably haven't spoken to as many Americans about their fantasy consumption as I have.  Actually, I'm not noticing a wide proliferation of "u" in words like "favorite" vs. "favourite" so I could be 100% completely and absolutely wrong and I hope I don't offend with my assumption.  Anyway, I've spoken to tons of fantasy readers (granted, mostly concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cultural regions of the United States, so my sample-size is not a really good cultural cross-section of U.S. culture, admittedly).  What I have discovered is that many of the readers of Jordan, Goodkind, Eddings, and Brooks were, if not consciously looking for a successor to Tolkien and a continuation of Middle-Earth epic adventure against dark lords and monolithic evil, were so subconsciously influenced by Tolkien that they assumed that such perilous quests and evil overlords were necessary tropes of the genre as a whole.
I also can't agree that fantasy, now or in 2011, was stuck in a "perilous and shabby condition", but instead it seemed then, and seems now, to be thriving, and finally throwing off the impression that it's for kids, or too silly for mature readers, or "it's all the same".
I've honestly been out of it.  I wouldn't know about the developments of the past four years.  I've had my attention firmly placed elsewhere.  I will admit, I am waiting for R. Scott Bakker's third novel of The Aspect-Emperor series but that is about it.  I've not stepped into a Barnes & Noble bookstore in about three or four years except on my campus to order books for my courses.  Therefore, I am really in no place to comment or argue and have to concede to you on this point.
Fantasy has had really three main "booms", in my opinion. The first, and most obvious, was the late 70's boom that Simon talks about. The second I think happened in the early 90's, when Robert Jordan's WOT books really took off and helped draw attention to other "fat fantasy" epics and finally the third boom (so far) was in the mid 2000's when ASOIAF became the new standard by which new fantasy authors were judged and a new era of low-fantasy, magic-lite, character-driven, gritty-and-grim novels began. Many hated these novels and loathed their success. I firmly believe that they are the future, or at least will prepare the way for the next boom that keeps fantasy alive, and to discount their impact is foolhardy.
Looking back on the post, I don't think it was my intention to discount their impact and if I gave that impression, it was unintentional.  I definitely agree that A Song of Ice and Fire has really put fantasy on the map so successfully that it is incredible.  Even my father admitted that he has HBO exclusively for A Game of Thrones now that Boardwalk Empire is over.  The question is simply this--is Martin a game-changer?  And if so, how, exactly, has he changed the game?  I'm not exactly certain that I like where the fantasy genre may be going from here because I've lost interest in A Song of Ice and Fire and I'd rather not see future fantasy imitate its soap-opera structure.
Ah, Randy, Randy. Look up "ad hoc argument" some time. 
Not one of the books "trashed" here even approaches greatness. I would argue that even some that are (lightly) praised don't even come close. 
I have a soft spot for the WOT series but I know it's deeply, deeply flawed. What can I say, it charmed me.
I usually delete comments that troll like this after I had a nasty run-in with a certain internet celebrity from The Escapist who dismissed my position and sicced his fanboys on me. I try to keep things professional here and ended up having to delete entire posts because I like potential employers to take a look at this blog.  Before that happened, I used to let posts like Randy's stay up and simply not respond because I figured anyone who had read the post and possessed half-a-brain and an ounce of logic and reason would know that Randy had made an utter fool of himself with his comment.

Thank you for demonstrating that I figured correctly.

As for The Wheel of Time... dude, it's a guilty pleasure.  There are a number of deeply, deeply flawed films, anime, and novels that charm me as well.  However, you recognize that it is flawed.  That sets you apart from the uncritical, unthinking consumers.
The SOT books did the opposite. I didn't notice its flaws at first but after a while I couldn't handle it anymore and it repelled me. I can't stand those books today and can't fathom why anyone likes them. I've got a whole list of reasons why they're terrible but that's a blog post (hell, that's a whole BLOG) on its own.
I read the first book and it seemed pretty solid for a pastiche.  It also seemed like it was a complete, self-contained story that had resolved.  I didn't see anywhere it could go.  I can't comprehend how he's milked this series without tremendously contrived plots.
I should point out that Robert Jordan always seemed like a nice man who was thankful to his fans for providing him with a career.
Oh, yeah, no doubt.  My criticisms of his writing are not personal criticisms of the man, whatsoever.  Not in the slightest.  Both the critic and the author have to detach the work being critiqued from the person who produced the work.
Terry Goodkind seems like a total jerk who hates the genre that made him a success and is angry with any fan who reads his books for the wrong reasons. "No, you don't understand. It's not fantasy. QUIT READING IT FOR THE FANTASY ELEMENTS! IT'S DEEP, DAMMIT!"
From what I've read and heard, the entire series is Randian Objectivism set in a fantasy world.  Having read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and learned about who and what sort of person she was, I can't say I'm all that surprised by Goodkind's attitude.
I'm gonna have to take issue with your lumping Abercrombie in with Nicholls and Morgan. From your comments equating all three writers as essentially the same in content and motivation, I'm going to assume you haven't actually read any of Abercrombie's stuff and are instead writing based solely on his reputation.
You redress this later so I'm not going to respond to this yet.
I have read Abercrombie's First Law trilogy and I find that it is essentially a leaner, meaner take on George RR Martin's approach to fantasy writing. His focus is on visceral character development and he crafts some of the most in-depth characterizations I've ever read. In lesser hands, a man like Glokta would be thoroughly unlikeable, a stereotypical boo-hiss villain incapable of drawing an iota of sympathy from the reader. In Abercrombie's hands, he comes off as more sympathetic than anyone else in the book.
If you're being objective (and I will assume you are), then Abercrombie is definitely talented.  As an historian, I often deal with humans that are quite often less than what we today imagine as heroes.  Especially characters like Achilles in Homer's Iliad.  However, I can't help but lament the demise of heroic fantasy and Abercrombie's fantasy is most certainly not heroic if all that I've heard and read about him is true.  I'm not bashing Abercrombie, here, or gritty, dark fantasy.  I'm simply saying that I wish there was more heroic fantasy out there.
Also, reading comments from the author's blog, Abercrombie is definitely NOT trying to just be an "anti-Tolkien". He respects Tolkien, rightly reveres him as the father of the genre he writes in. But he correctly states that Tolkien has already mapped out one corner of the fantasy genre, so it would be wrong of Abercrombie to stick solely to those paths. As far as I'm concerned, Abercrombie is head and shoulders above the likes of Morgan and Nicholls and deserves to be thought of as Martin's successor.
I don't know if Martin needs or should have a successor.  Nevertheless, you (and Abercrombie) are right--if that corner of fantasy is already mapped out, there's nothing wrong with trying to push in new directions.  I'd also like to see people do great stuff with older material.  That's why I love Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.  His is most certainly epic and heroic fantasy with all the trappings.  However, he doesn't tread over what Tolkien did but instead draws from the same well of inspiration as Tolkien had and does some interesting and new (indeed, deconstructive) things with heroic fantasy.  I'd like to see some of that, too.
I have said before that writers who employ a healthy dose of cynicism, grit and realism in their fantasy writing have helped broaden the genre and help people understand that it's not just all fanciful swill designed to entertain children. Writers like Martin, Erikson, KJ Parker, Bakker, Matthew Stover, China Meiville and yes, Abercrombie, are not just "rebelling against Tolkien" but are instead rising beyond the formulaic approach of Brooks, Eddings, Salvatore, et al. They are the modern Glen Cooks or Mervyn Peakes, showing what more the genre can be.
One must be careful regarding what is considered "mature" and what is considered "kid's stuff" because when sometimes what is passed off as "mature" is really just adolescent and sophomoric.  I put this in here as a word of caution, really.  Again, I can't speak for certain but

Fantasy is not the only genre and books the only medium to be inundated with gore and violence in an attempt to be "mature" or "edgy."  Anime has been having this issue since the decline of the OVA and the loosening of television restrictions in Japan and the "shock factor" isn't making anime better.

As I wrote in "'Realism' and Nihilism in Contemporary Fantasy:"
So, in order to avoid just another umpteenth retelling of The Lord of the Rings, modern fantasy requires foul language, scatology, immoral anti-heroes, graphic sex, sickening and upsetting violence, and rape. In other words, it needs to realistically depict the graphic realities of medieval life, warfare, and death because Tolkien didn't do that (although Howard approached it). 
As I go through earlier 20th century works of fantasy fiction, I find them chock-full of sex and violence. It's just not graphic. I have to ask why George R.R. Martin finds it necessary to describe, in detail, one character's sexual experience in A Feast of Crows, where Poul Anderson simply ended a chapter of Three Hearts and Three Lions as Holger carries an elf princess off to bed. What was the rationale behind it? Sex is a part of life and shouldn't be avoided in literature, but I don't need a pornographic description of what happens. Similarly, Robert E. Howard's warriors would wade through buckets of blood, but it was always described with a certain panache that is most definitely lacking in a lot of contemporary fantasy. They seemed less like men and more like forces of nature in combat, and the violence of the scene was woven into the tale like thread. This is different from reading about some young maiden trying to hold her intestines inside herself after a mercenary decided to gut her. I'm trying read an adventure tale, not watching a Rob Zombie flick.
Violence and sex are vehicles for telling a story.  They are not the objective.  Ask yourself this: is the violence and sex necessary?  If the answer is "no," then ask, "Why is it in here?"  If the answer is "yes," then ask, "Why is it necessary?"  The answer may be in how it is used and what the point is.  The idea is to separate whether or not it is violence for the sake of edginess or to get a point across.

For example, the opening of Saving Private Ryan most certainly needed to be as violent as it was for various reasons.  Spielberg wanted to show what no previous film about the Second World War had done up until then--show what the weapons actually did to the soldiers they wounded or killed.  It also established how desperate and terrifying the war was so that we could comprehend the sort of mental and physical trauma the characters were enduring throughout the course of the film.  It intensified the risk.  Death wasn't a melodramatic scene where the mortally wounded character whispered, "It's getting dark."  Instead, he bled.  Everywhere.  On his letters home.  On his girlfriend's picture.  He died crying "mama, mama" because he wasn't yet twenty years of age.  The horror actually raised the stakes and intensified the drama.  It instilled an appreciation in us for what our grandparents and great-grandparents endured.  The violence was necessary to drive the very premise of the film home to the viewer.

I won't compare this to a lot of horror because the violence in many of those films is part of what is enjoyable.  I watch Rob Zombie movies to see the spectacle of the horror but I don't come out with any sort of feeling that Rob Zombie had something meaningful to say about the human condition.  The Saw films fail because the premise is actually tremendously flimsy and the violence descends into pointless torture-porn, so perhaps they're a good counter-example.  Yet the best counter-example I can think of to Saving Private Ryan is the anime entitled Elfen Lied.  If you remove the violence the entire show collapses in on itself because without the edginess the entire narrative premise cannot stand.  It lives and dies on how adolescent and edgy it is.

I can't get into Mieville.  He's far too political for me and I've read where he says he's deliberately anti-Tolkien.  I can't find the article where I read that, so I admit my assertion here is shaky.  Martin's problem is, I think, he's lost control of his story to a degree.  I'll probably have to write a very long and very detailed post about Martin.  This doesn't mean I dislike A Song of Ice and Fire but rather that I'm fatigued by its length and will probably return to it once it has been completed.  Erikson and Bakker, I really enjoy, for vastly different reasons.

Given a few years of perspective, I think that the "rebelling against Tolkien" is something the pundits have decided upon, for the most part.  With the exception of Mieville and Moorcock, who both criticize Tolkien for being "politically incorrect," "politically conservative," and writing "narratives of oppression" and all that other university-professor mumbo-jumbo, I think a lot of these writers do, indeed, admit that they owe a debt to Tolkien.
I somehow missed this section, and missed that you admitted you've not read Abercrombie.
Yup.  No worries.  That's why I soft-pedaled my assessment and put a lot of qualifiers in my argument regarding him because it is intrinsically flawed.
You need to. The descriptions of others' critique of his work goes from "missed the point" (The title of The Heroes was meant to be ironic) to "skimmed it instead of read it". 
Abercrombie may be the finest writer of fantasy of the new millenium, with Sanderson a half-step behind. Please, before you judge him, read him. And read him with an open mind.
If I get the opportunity, I may.  I'll probably start with The First Law series.  I don't know about Sanderson.  I don't want to admit it but his association with Robert Jordan has kind of put me off.

I've got a lot of reading to do and I spend much of my reading time on some pretty heavy stuff.  I have to look at is opportunity cost.  I've got to read more of a lot of philosophers, historians, and classic canon literature, too.  Therefore, I have to cut some stuff and just accept that I may never get the opportunity to read it before I die.  There are simply too many books out there and not enough hours in a day, days in a year, or years in a lifetime, unfortunately.

Thanks for writing, Josh.  You've given me something to think about and a reason to return to some very old posts about which I've not thought in a long time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Trigun and Japanese Narrative Structure: A Response to ThatAnimeSnob

This post is mostly in response to ThatAnimeSnob's assessment of Trigun in his review in specific and his remarks on it that surface in his studio evaluation (Madhouse), and his annual evaluation for 1998.

In his annual evaluation, ThatAnimeSnob describes Trigun as follows:
It is quite good in terms of action and characterization but it keeps jumping from comedy to tragedy way too fast and kills the mood.  Not bad overall but it surely lacks focus on what it wants to be.
His review over at AniDB is much more descriptive of what his issues are:

-The first part is episodes 1 to 11.  These are mostly aimless comedy, where the lead character is goofing around and saves random people in random areas.  It is very light and makes you think that the entire show is nothing but silly storyless adventure.
-The second part is episodes 12 to 16, where the story is now entering an on-going and more serious phase.  You are given some insight to the hero's past and he faces far more fearful and inhuman opponents.  Now you think the show ill be hereon an average to good action/comedy/drama.
-The third part is the rest of the show (17 to 26), where the comedy portion almost disappears, violence, death and tragedy are increased tenfold.  This part reveals the hero's tragic past and how he tries to make up for all the damage he and his brother caused to the world.  The catch is, unlike the beginning of the show where nothing seems hard to accomplish when he is fighting seriously, over here he hardly manages to achieve half of what he intends to do.
The mood of the show changes almost 180 degrees from beginning to end, turning from a silly comedy to some serious tragedy.  That is perceived as a bold and well received element that makes the whole deal far more memorable and interesting.  If it was tragic or comedy all the way, the effect on you would be halved
That is still not enough for me to give a 10 to the story.  As much as I liked the mood swings, I found many scenes where the storyboard was messy and chaotic.  The plot seems to move any way the animators felt like it and the action scenes lack realism almost entirely, which in effect ruins a big part of its attempt to be serious.  The major showdowns are also a major problem as they all seem to end fast and almost effortless or way too simplistic.  The conclusion is like that as well so it may feel lukewarm in comparison to what was building up along the way so far.

Many of these are absolutely legitimate criticisms and I will not dispute that there are issues with tone and pacing.  Some of this can simply boiled down to aesthetics--Japanese audiences tend to find American (in particular) and Western (in general) stories to either be all comedy or all drama and they find that approach dry and less interesting as a heavy mixture complete with stark jumps between mood.  While that explains why a great deal of anime characteristically employs the jarring tonal transitions from tragic drama to comic relief, this is entirely a matter of taste and as a Westerner myself I admit that I find these shifts in tone to damage the overall dramatic tension in a story.

However, there are a few aspects of ThatAnimeSnob's review that I feel must be addressed because they are reflective of common East Asian storytelling techniques that are virtually unknown or misunderstood in the West.  Trigun, in particular, is a prime example of how Japanese narratives often follow a jo-ha-kyu (序破急), a technique whose roots are employed in Noh theater and discussed at length by the 14th/15th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo much as Aristotle discussed ancient Greek dramatic structure.

NOTE:  This post will focus on jo-ha-kyu as a pacing structure for Japanese narratives.  It will not concern kishotenketsu (起承転結) although it deserves some mention because, as will be discussed below, it is overlaid upon jo-ha-kyu much like Freytag's pyramid can be superimposed upon the three-act model.

ADDITIONAL NOTE:  This response is not a rebuttal or a criticism of ThatAnimeSnob's assessment of Trigun.  While I do think Trigun scored a bit lower than I feel it deserved, de gustibus non est disputandem.  The purpose of this post is to point out how Trigun exemplifies a narrative structure and dramatic pattern that is endemic to Japanese storytelling and how that structure is both unfamiliar and aesthetically difficult to process for many Western (especially North American) audiences.

The average reader may be aware that Western drama has its roots in classical Athenian theater, much of which survives in the preserved tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschuylus and the comedies of Aristophanes (mostly dating from the 4th century B.C.) and (as mentioned above) the analysis and critique of drama preserved by Aristotle's Poetics (unfortunately, only the portion on tragedy survives--his analysis on comedy is lost).

These roots are then filtered through Shakespeare in the Anglophonic world.  Shakespeare reshaped drama in the English milieu and is the most immediate foundation for theater and film that exists in North America, the United Kingdom, and the British Commonwealth.  In the 19th century, much of Western dramatic structure was systematically analyzed by Gustav Freytag as is demonstrated by the pyramid structure of Western storytelling.

Most American schoolchildren are taught the basic components of storytelling and elementary critical theory in Language Arts classes in elementary school.  Therefore, Freytag's pyramid, with it's exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution elements, should be familiar to any North American (at least).  Most Anglophonic stories utilize this method and further refine it, through Shakespeare's influence, into a discernible three-act structure as seen below:

The three-act structure is extremely apparent in basic Anglophonic storytelling, from Beowulf to The Matrix.  Indeed, it is a nigh-universal base structure as well.  An easy example of the three-act structure in action is the original Star Wars film.  The first act generally establishes the characters, their motivations, and the conflict.  The second act introduces complications, providing minor victories and setbacks to further motivate the protagonist or to increase dramatic tension and intensify conflict (both internally and externally).  The final act sees the protagonist complete a transformation that enables him to overcome whatever challenges are set before him or (in the case of tragedy) to succumb to misfortune through the presence of some sort of tragic flaw.

This structure can be combined with the pyramid to illustrate the manner in which Anglo-American stories are constructed in a general sense.

This combination of Freytag's pyramid with the three-act structure illustrates how the elements of the first two acts combine to create the rising action that climaxes and resolves in act three.  The key to understand the difference between Western structure and jo-ha-kyu lies in understanding when the conflict is introduced.  The basic structure of the first act in a Noh play and in Western drama (be it tragedy or comedy) is the beginning of the divergence between storytelling technique.

Jo-ha-kyu is commonly translated as "beginning, break, rapid."  It traditionally consists of a five-movement structure (as opposed to three acts) and is based on a very different pacing aesthetic from the Western three-act model.  The essence of jo-ha-kyu is establishing a slow, peaceful pace broken by the jarring and sudden surge in dramatic tension that climaxes extremely rapidly before resolving even more abruptly.  The first movement establishes the protagonist and his overall situation, which is usually somewhat favorable to the protagonist.  This movement takes up a great deal of time and establishes a very light tone that is often optimistic and reflective of a certain status quo.  The break occurs during the second movement, in which the conflict is usually introduced--at this point, the pacing of the story increases suddenly and surges towards the climax in the third movement (the break), where the story pivots and begins to resolve equally as rapidly.  The overall effect is to see how the conflict disrupts and destroys the status-quo before it resolves and a new status-quo is established at the end.  The drama is enhanced by the sense of absolute disruption.

A good literary example of this is in Natsume Soseki's novel Sorekara.  The beginning establishes Daisuke as the protagonist, who generally floats through life on a stipend from his wealthy family.  Complications arise when they urge him to marry and his close friend, Hiraoka, returns home with a wife (Michiyo) and a mountain of debt.  Despite these complications, however, the dramatic tension does not increase for much of the book, establishing Daisuke's life as a somewhat carefree existence in which these complications have very little real effect on him.  The story accelerates once Daisuke falls in love with Michiyo and the real conflict is introduced.  The status quo is completely destroyed by Daisuke's love affair with Michiyo.  From that point on, the book resolves extremely rapidly.

Final Fantasy VI also displays jo-ha-kyu as a narrative method.  The climactic pivot of the game's story occurs not at the end but when Kefka moves the goddess statues out of alignment on the floating continent and creates the World of Ruin--from this point on the status quo is destroyed and the conflict must be resolved in a new context.

Trigun also demonstrates jo-ha-kyu in application as a Japanese literary technique.  What ThatAnimeSnob does naturally is to observe that there is a definite structure to the show's composition.  He identifies Episodes 1 through 11 as effectively stable, episodic, and comedic.  Episodes 12 through 16 introduces an actual conflict that supersedes the previous structure and results in the transition of tone from lighthearted to intensely serious.  Episodes 17 through 26 resolve the conflict but not in as dramatic or climactic a fashion as ThatAnimeSnob would have preferred.

What is interesting is that he unintentionally delineates the pacing consistency that jo-ha-kyu exemplifies.  It is unintentional (I assume) because I do not expect ThatAnimeSnob to be aware of jo-ha-kyu as a Japanese aesthetic concept because in the West it is particularly obscure.  It is a testament to ThatAnimeSnob's skill as a critical thinker that he unintentionally and indirectly explained jo-ha-kyu in his review of Trigun.

The first episodes introduce the viewer to the base elements of the story--the characters Milly, Meryl, and Vash, as well as their motivations; the planet of Gunsmoke is established primarily through visual cues; the general comedic tone of the status quo is firmly founded.  The premise is laid forth--It is preferable to run away than commit acts of violence; nonlethal violence should only be applied as a last resort.  This is translated into the theme--love and peace can conquer all.

There are overarching conflicts through these episodes but they are low-key compared to the later conflicts.  First, there is the conflict that Meryl Strife & Milly Thompson have with Vash.  Milly and Meryl want Vash to stop destroying stuff because it is costing their insurance company a fortune but Vash is not actually responsible for any of the destruction we witness on screen.  The destruction is mostly generated by the other conflicts in the story--criminals Vash will usually foil or bounty hunters trying to capture him.

The first eleven episodes establish how Vash is never really challenged.  If he cannot escape he can draw upon his superhuman skills as a gunslinger to resolve conflicts through nonlethal force.  The result is usually Vash looking sublimely awesome and utterly defeating his opponents.  Love and peace are reinforced as theme: if everybody would just stop fighting and get along, none of these problems would happen.  This is the status quo.

Things start to shift between episodes 11 and 12.  This is when the status quo begins to break down and the antagonists begin to seriously challenge Vash's adherence to his principles.  Suddenly, "Love & Peace" may not be enough.  In Episode 12, Vash almost murders Monev the Gale to avenge the dead and stop Monev.  This is the first time that simply running away or using nonlethal force are not enough--if he had killed Monev at the outset, innocent lives would not have been lost.

The narrative is now turning in a new direction with this introduction of Legato and his followers.  Vash's scars are revealed and the tone of the story shifts as the pacing increases and the stakes gradually become clear.  Vash's own inner conflicts gradually surface during this period of the narrative.  The premise and theme are called into question and Vash has to not only face his past but also decide at what point the price of his principles is too great.

This peaks with the break section, the highest climactic point of the story in the third movement.  Episode 16 is possibly Vash's lowest point and the key moment in the jo-ha-kyu pattern.  It is here in Episode 16, specifically the moment Vash loses control and blows a hole in the Fifth Moon, that the ha (break) takes place.  The auspicious and optimistic tone of the first ten episodes is eradicated entirely as the new mood and atmosphere takes over.

What he have seen, then, is how the introduction of the core, real, actual conflict has utterly annihilated the tone and pace of the beginning portion.  Jo-ha-kyu often generates drama by showing how the conflict can destroy stability and introduce chaos.  Considering that Japanese society has been heavily influenced by Confucianism, it should be apparent that this is a characteristically East Asian approach to conflict in general.

Typical to the Japanese narrative structure, there's a brief pause (Episode 17) before the fourth and fifth movements accelerate toward a conclusion.  The old status quo is gone.  Vash is now working through his internal conflicts regarding his pacifistic principles and the reality that conflict with Knives will result in lethal force.  The fact that the conclusion of the story is not as climactic as would be typical of a Western narrative is due to the nature of jo-ha-kyu, wherein the climax is usually the breaking-point of the tale, where the narrative decisively pivots from one tone to another and the status quo is utterly disrupted.  The fourth and fifth movements of the tale are where the protagonist takes steps to resolve the disruption caused by the break in the third movement.  While there are still peaks in dramatic tension, they are not as strong or as pronounced as those in the third movement where the break takes place.  Thus, the climax, where the dramatic tension of the tale is at its highest, is not in the latter two movements but in the third.  What carries the audience through the story is the acceleration toward the conclusion--the feeling of rapid, organic movement with spikes of dramatic tension that act as a rapid succession of aftershocks on the heels of the main earthquake.

If viewed and analyzed from the standpoint of jo-ha-kyu, Trigun holds up aesthetically well.  However, jo-ha-kyu is culturally specific to the Japanese.  For those raised in the Japanese context, their familiarity with it as a narrative model will not feel quite so jarring as it may to Westerners.  Numerous texts throughout Japanese literature and popular culture (such as video games, anime, novels, and manga) illustrate the application of jo-ha-kyu.  Final Fantasy VI and Natsume's Sorekara are provided as examples above of this model in media other than anime.

De gustibus non est disputandem.  It is entirely possible and acceptable for ThatAnimeSnob to find jo-ha-kyu tedious and uninteresting a narrative model.  I'm not going to fault him for his assessment of Trigun--this post's purpose was not to correct ThatAnimeSnob or to defend Trigun's flaws but instead to provide perspective that can shed light on why Trigun's plot structure seems so disjointed.  If this perspective alters opinions so that viewers can appreciate Trigun's narrative, I feel that I will have accomplished something.  If viewers such as ThatAnimeSnob do not alter their opinions in the slightest in spite of this post, then at least I would have spent a few hours relaxing with a cup of coffee at a coffee shop, thinking about stuff I enjoy and putting it to print.

It should also be pointed out that an understanding of jo-ha-kyu should not lead to an automatic perception of all anime (or manga) as literary masterpieces.  Neither a thorough grasp and appreciation for jo-ha-kyu or kishotenketsu can redeem such trainwrecks as Mirai Nikki or Clannad, despite the tremendous amount of praise and hype heaped upon them by what ThatAnimeSnob deems to be "tasteless casuals."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Genshiken Nidaime and Spotted Flower

Note:  I originally wrote this post back at the end of August, 2014.  It's now early April and I've not posted anything because I've been incredibly busy with teaching at a local community college and finishing up my M.Ed. and my coursework for teaching certification.

As issue 110 was just released of Genshiken Nidaime and Kio Shimoku's latest interview with Anime News Network, I've got to say, a lot of what I've said here may not, at all, be relevant anymore.  I still feel very similarly to how I did back in August of 2014 but a lot of reveals since them have introduced and changed many of the facts.

Therefore, much of what is written here may not really be relevant or applicable.
 End of note.

So, I reread all of Genshiken and Genshiken Nidaime in July and August.  It seriously made me reconsider a number of assessments I had made in my previous series (Intro, Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) on Genshiken Nidaime's gender dynamics, although, on the whole, recent developments during the summer, including Kio Shimoku's recent publications in Afternoon (especially issues 101, 102, and the as-yet untranslated 103) have seemed to validate a number of my assessments.  Coupled with the two most recent issues of Spotted Flower (issue 12 and issue 12.5), I am going to depart from my usual style of "impartial" analysis and actually do a bit of "shipping."

I've no serious investment in whether Madarame and Saki get together.  Although I like the characters, I recognize them as fictional and I won't get upset if events don't play out as I'm predicting here.  The reason I'm writing this post, however, is to demonstrate the contextual and literary rationale for my "shipping," essentially arguing that Kio Shimoku has been spending about half of Genshiken Nidaime building toward the situations found within Spotted Flower via analysis of the plot thus far as well as analysis of the characters themselves.

I'm only going to discuss my reassessments in brief, so let's get them out of the way first.

I will admit I mischaracterized Yoshitake's character as a literary Satan/Devil/Loki character.  While she is somewhat chaotic, most of this is due to her enthusiasm and happy-go-lucky personality.  She's not really experienced heartache, nor seen heartache in her friends.  She accepts that she's somewhat pathetic (re: Ogiue's question regarding everyone's romantic histories) but it doesn't seem to bother her at all.

The problem with Yoshitake is that she doesn't realize she's playing with fire by trying to set up Yajima with Hato.  Broken hearts are difficult to mend and while Yoshitake realizes that the circumstances surrounding Hato's infatuation with Madarame may lead to a breakup of the Genshiken as a whole, she doesn't seem to realize that her meddling could hurt Yajima as well.

Yoshitake's motivations are alright.  She wants Yajima to be happy and in that regard, she's a great friend.  Yajima doesn't have any confidence in herself and her feelings for Hato, albeit known to Yoshitake, are suppressed and denied by Yajima for fear of failure and rejection.  What Yoshitake doesn't seem to realize is that there's no doubt that Hato would reject any romantic advances from Yajima.  Or perhaps Yoshitake does realize this?  If Yoshitake does, is she trying to maneuver Yajima so that she, too, gets rejected like Madarame was rejected by Saki in order for Yajima to get over it?

I don't think Yajima will recover from a rejection like Madarame did.

After re-reading Genshiken, it became quite clear what sort of personality Sue has.  Sue finds Madarame attractive and is drawn to him but she constantly rejects and refuses her feelings in order to maintain a persona.  The fact is, Sue is almost always playing a character in front of everyone.  When she speaks Japanese from her heart and not by reciting quotes we get a glimpse into her personality--a caring, observant, sensitive person.  Unfortunately, she keeps this part of herself submerged unless the situation requires her to speak up and help the group to remain solid and harmonious.

Sue's defense of Ogiue at the Comiket is a fantastic example of this.  Sue's encouraging of Ogiue to not allow Hato to feel isolated after he "outed" Madarame as a fantasy uke is another example.  Sue's conscientious and despite her "funny gaijin" caricature, she's genuinely compassionate and perceptive.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Madarame, or perhaps just men in general, Sue's got some major issues and unless Kio Shimoku shifts focus in the upcoming Fall's issues, we're not likely to get a real look into her psyche to see what her deal is.  She's chosen a persona that's possessive of Ogiue and a self-proclaimed rival of Sasahara.  Granted, this rivalry isn't serious--it's all part of her act.  It's not who she really is.  Interestingly enough, everyone else seems to know this.

Like Madarame's shell of otaku-ness, Sue's persona is a big defense mechanism meant to protect her heart.  She easily bonds with the women around her and becomes protective of them.  The men, however, really don't get much interaction with her (with the exceptions of Hato and Kuchiki, who are, well, exceptional) beyond "Die, Sasahara!" and "Die, Tanaka!"  It's unclear whether she feels fearful and threatened by men or simply perceives them as rivals and antagonists.  Her feelings for Madarame are likely due to his growth toward passivity and unobtrusiveness.  He's not threatening to her because, as he expresses at the end of Issue #103, "Girls are scary!"  When it comes to Madarame, Sue can feel safe and in control.  Unfortunately, she is also scared of revealing her true feelings.  She's made her mask so important to her that she's resistant to actually expressing her actual self.

Unless something serious happens, like when the entire female contingent of the Genshiken cajoled and maneuvered Sasahara and Ogiue into coming to terms with their pasts and feelings toward one another, Sue is very much unlikely to ever confront herself enough to make any real, honest advances toward Madarame.

Hato's come to terms with himself and his hobbies.  Whereas I saw Hato as tremendously confused back in the Spring, I now recognize Hato as a character who has come to accept who he is and what he loves.  The problem with this is that he has become infatuated with Madarame.

Porn addiction is a serious problem and all of the female club members in Genshiken Nidaime struggle with it to one degree or another.  Make no mistake, porn addiction has been linked to a number of romantic and erotic psychoses developed by those experiencing it, male or female.  For most of the female members of Genshiken, their "addiction" is pretty mild-to-nonexistent.  In Hato's case, however, it has driven him to an alternate (and in Japan, deviant) lifestyle.  While the rest of the members struggle with it by characterizing it as a 2-D vs 3-D dichotomy, Hato has jumped down the rabbit hole and is deliberately trying to live out a 2-D fantasy in real life.

Keiko's blasting of Hato's character in Issue #102 has been questioned by some (such as Muda-kun at Hearts of Furious Fancies) as potentially bigoted and homophobic.  I argue that it's not.  Keiko is no saint and is a petty and narcissistic person (as evidenced by the big reveal in Issue #103, which, if people recall a few moments in the original Genshiken, isn't so surprising after all).  Keiko's criticism of Hato, however, is entirely correct.  If we are what we do, then Hato's a deceiver.

I don't dislike Hato and I don't think Hato is a Bad Person.  I do think Hato is doing something very unethical and immoral, however.  I explained it to Muda-kun thusly:

Hato deliberately put himself in situations where he would fall in love with Madarame.  His Hato x Mada fantasy is something he's desperately trying to bring into reality but the truth is, Madarame will end up in his own version of The Crying Game and everyone is going to be hurt in the end.  Indeed, Madarame could end up going full-blown hikikomori from this entire affair.  I know it's a fictional manga, but Shimoku isn't one to go after unrealistic plot resolutions and Madarame going gay for Hato is about as unrealistic as Madarame piloting a Gundam, not to mention damage if not totally destroy many of the premises from which Shimoku is working. 
If Angela [and Keiko are] bad idea[s] for Madarame, and [they're] cis-gendered heterosexual female bombsell[s], then Hato is potentially disastrous... .  Hato is quite confused but he's less confused than he was before.  What he used to be confused about was his orientation.  Now he's accepted it alongside his love of BL and his enjoyment of being a trans-gendered future-female.  These things aren't a problem--the problem is Hato can't draw the line between fantasy and reality anymore.  Although the fujoshi in the club have tried to help Hato out often it has come with side-effects that muddied the waters and made things inadvertantly worse (ex. when Ogiue, at Sue's urging, showed Hato her Sasa x Mada drawings, which simply threw gas on the fire).  What Hato is doing to Madarame is just as bad as a straight guy doing the same thing to a lesbian woman... . 
Everything she's said about Hato doing "shitty things" has been in regards to seducing Madarame, especially during a time when Madarame is weakened.  Since summer Comiket, he's been humiliated (in part thanks to Hato, in part, thanks to Angela), he's had his heart broken by Saki, been put in an awkward position because of it, had Angela show up again and humiliate him, broken his wrist, been told he's got the weight of a harem to navigate, and on top of all this, Hato is in full-on yamato nadeshiko mode with aims to seduce Mada.  Mada's not attracted to Hato, here, he's desperately attracted to the yamato nadeshiko Hato is dressing as and Mada's having a hard time keeping in mind Hato-chan's [not actually a girl].
Let's consider the last sentence of the second paragraph here.  "What Hato is doing to Madarame is just as bad as a straight guy doing the same thing to a lesbian woman."  I can't imagine any homosexual women approving or even remaining tacitly indifferent to a storyline in which a lesbian woman is "seduced" back to being heterosexual.  It's extremely offensive and the readers would be outraged not just at the writer but at the male seducing character as well.

It doesn't help that Hato is taking advantage of the fact that Madarame's years of sexual isolation and frustration have programmed a weakness to yamato nadeshiko archetypes.  Hato is deliberately accentuating and exemplifying the tropes and characteristics regarding the yamato nadeshiko just as much as he was accentuating and exemplifying BL tropes and characteristics when he was changing at Madarame's apartment.  The only difference is that Hato is no longer engaged in any internal debate.  He's completely committed to his cause.

If Spotted Flower Issues #12 and #12.5 are any indication, Hato is headed for severe disappointment.  This is a big turnaround for Kio Shimoku with regards to how things had resolved throughout Genshiken.  Nevertheless, given how badly some things turn out for the depressingly stupid and narcissistic characters in Yonensei and Gonensei I am wondering if Shimoku is going to bring forth bitter fruit for any of the Genshiken Nidaime characters' decisions.

The Case for Spotted Flower
Spotted Flower is a point of contention for many readers of Genshiken Nidaime.  Is it canon?  Are the characters actually the same as the ones in Genshiken and Genshiken Nidaime?  Is it an alternate universe?  Are the similarities between all the major (and unnamed) characters in Spotted Flower only to tease the audience or is Kio Shimoku changing certain aspects of appearance and omitting names only because of copyright laws (Spotted Flower is serialized in a jousei manga anthology magazine and not Afternoon).

There is the teaser at the end of Genshiken Nidaime #80 after Saki has let Madarame down.  Are we to consider this a plug for an unrelated comic, an unofficial and non-canon glimpse at a would-be future, or a look at the actual future for the characters?  It is my contention that, given all of the facts in Spotted Flower and Genshiken/Genshiken Nidaime that Spotted Flower actually is the future of the Genshiken but Kio Shimoku filed off all the numbers in order to avoid any legal issues that may arise from serializing Spotted Flower in a different magazine.

The biggest hurdle to demonstrate that Spotted Flower is in fact the future of Saki and Madarame is Saki's assertion that, if it were a different universe and Saki wasn't dating Kousaka, that there might be something between the two of them.

This, however, is just how she feels at the time.  If it weren't for Kousaka, Saki never would have even met Madarame, never would have come to care about and respect him (or any other members of the Genshiken, for that matter), and never learned to be tolerant of and even accepting of his otaku-ness.  This is blatantly alluded to in the first few issues of Spotted Flower, where the wife reveals she had dated the husband's friend from his college circle and that the relationship taught her not to feel revulsion for otaku hobbies and interests.  Thus, in Spotted Flower, it is already established that the wife once dated the husband's friend but the relationship ended, allowing the wife and husband to get together.

The following excerpt from the comic (found here originally) after Saki turns Madarame down is extremely revealing.
Kousaka asserts that he love's Saki enough to show her 100% of who he is.  That's lovely.  The problem with Onno's rejoinder is that she doesn't point out that Kousaka doesn't love Saki enough to change in order to give her what she needs.  This is a problem.  I'd say he would be a good candidate for someone with Asperger's if it weren't for some inconsistencies in his behavior that invalidate him.  Kousaka only shows affection for Saki when it is required.  He is perfectly comfortable with or without a relationship and in the earlier issues of Genshiken the audience is privy to Saki's fears and frustrations in not getting what she needs from Kousaka.  Kousaka feels no need to put Saki first.  This is a serious problem.

Saki's been a champion.  She doesn't demand Kousaka change for her and, indeed, she's grown and changed a great deal.  She's gone from being the Genshiken's primary antagonist to a hero that's rescued the club numerous times.  Saki may dearly love Kousaka but their relationship is not healthy, no matter how many Kousaka x Saki shippers try to demonstrate otherwise.  The few moments of their relationship that are illuminated for the audience in Genshiken Nidaime don't give any evidence that Kousaka has grown or changed at all.  His order of priorities puts Saki pretty low in comparison to his hobbies.  Anyone who has ever been in a relationship or studied even rudimentary psychology knows that Saki is in an unhealthy situation.

This is why I see her relationship with Kousaka as temporary.  After Saki started to change and became a true friend to the other members of Genshiken, I went from snickering at her relationship woes because she was a terrible, shallow, self-centered person to hoping she'd break up with him because she deserves better.   A break-up with Kousaka is almost inevitable.

Genshiken was about a lot of things but one of them is Saki's personal growth.  Similarly, Genshiken Nidaime is about a lot of things but it is also about Madarame's growth and maturity as well.  I think Kio Shimoku is setting up a situation in which, when Saki and Kousaka break up, Madarame will be healthy enough and able enough to participate in a relationship with Saki.

Kio Shimoku is doing one of two things with Spotted Flower.  Either he's giving the audience a glimpse of the Genshiken characters' futures, specifically Saki and Madarame, or he is trolling his Genshiken audience.  There really isn't much of a chance for any other interpretation or possibility.  It is entirely possible that the next few months of Genshiken Nidaime will feature events that drastically redirect the course of the plot (especially since Winter Comiket is coming and that means Angela's return, as well as the new school year and possible new club members in Spring).  Kio Shimoku progressed through four years of character growth and plot events in 55 issues (Genshiken), but the past 48 issues haven't even spanned the course of a single year!  A lot of fans are hoping that Shimoku wraps up the Madarame harem storyline soon, which has been going on for about 23 issues so far (that's nearly two years' of issues).

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The DM as "Sacred"

So, there are about a dozen blog posts I want to make right now and not enough time to do so.  So, I'm going to go in order and discuss today the first thing on my mind which is a response by an anonymous commentator to my last post on Religion in D&D: Sacredness.  The commentator has some interesting things to say so I encourage the reader to click the above link and scroll down to his or her comments because this entry is going to be a response.

The timing of this blog entry is fortuitous because Alexis over at The Tao of D&D just posted on the rock star position of the DM and seeing his "smug superior mug" accentuated and subordinating the players' images in online game videos on YouTube.  Yeah, read all about it here.

Anyway, my anonymous commentator (henceforth I'm going to refer to him or her as "Anon") indicates a grandiose shift in gaming away from emphasis on the DM and toward the players and the removal of the "arbitrary" and to the rigid, governable world in which the DM is marginalized.

My response is, frankly, one of mystification.  I'm not certain I see what Anon is talking about.  All over the internet, on YouTube, on blogs, on RPGnet, the DMs are Rock Stars and are all centers of juvenile controversy as well (see this post over on The Alexandrian to see just how ridiculously pedantic and politically droll some of these feuds can get--especially "enjoy" the comments section to see the flames spill forth).  Alexis' blog references I Hit it with My Axe as an example of a heavily followed and syndicated series of game sessions viewable online.  I can go on YouTube and watch a dozen-and-one DMs explain how they run, why they run, what rules or systems are best, how their house rules really improve things, etc.  There's definitely a smugness about most of these guys.

So here I am, humbled by Alexis.  Yeah, okay, people may think I'm a suck-up.  That's your prerogative.  The fact is, I'm also called an arrogant and elitist bastard quite often.  I respect experience and knowledge, especially if those two components are combined with metacognition and self-criticism/self-reflection to produce sweeping changes in one's own behaviors for the better, despite whether one likes the harsh truths of their conclusions or not.  That way lies intellectual honesty.  Even Socrates admitted he didn't know anything.  That's why I always appreciated Alexis' blog.  Here's a man who speaks with authority because he's criticized himself personally as well as his DMing quite a bit.

Now I've been reading his How to Run and it's been kicking my butt.  No, rest assured, there are things Alexis asserts with which I have disagreements but here's the kicker--I respect all of the work and research and experience that have all gone into those assertions and I'm obligated to challenge myself and figure out why I disagree with Alexis here and there and, most importantly, if those disagreements stem from my own preferences, insecurities, and personal foibles (limitations of perspective or simple, raw self-centeredness, for example).

Why do I bring up Alexis?  Because both The Tao of D&D and How to Run pound the idea that the DM's fun is secondary to the players' fun and the DM is performing a service to the players by running.  The players should be the rock stars.  There should be a bit of a trade-off, of course, because the amount of work the DM puts into constructing the world and making sure it serves the players' needs and wants, the players should have respect for that world and all the time and effort of the DM and not simply run around willy-nilly killing blacksmiths and seducing barmaids.

The number-one problem with all of these DMs I see online is that their fun takes precedence over the players' quite often (or at least is considered equal in proportion to the combined amount of fun being had by all the players').  I have to admit, I fail in this regard quite often.  I don't have fun running certain campaign settings or systems, frankly, even if my players' love them.  There are times when my players are having a great time and I'm fighting off boredom trying to project enjoyment and confidence that isn't there and I really just want to go do something else.  The problem here is that by picking up the mantle of DM, I've also shouldered a serious responsibility to those who play my game to provide fun for them, not for myself.  I should achieve satisfaction from seeing how they enjoy the game I run but that's not the same thing as having fun.  Indeed, satisfaction is something that's more important because it means I've put work into something and achieved a goal--a goal that not just anybody could.

This also means I have to do things I don't want to do in game.  This includes trying to kill the PCs if that is what the world demands.  I have a tendency to get attached to PCs and I have to remind myself to react as the world would react.  It has to be believable or I do a disservice to both my world and to the players.

So, let's take a look at some of what Anon has said about the loss of sacredness with the DM.  First, Anon indicates that in the 1980s and 1990s, before the "anti-game master movement" gained momentum, that the DM embodied the sacred, unquantifiable aspects of reality.  Anon references the Judeo-Christian God as a great example of a DM in action through a manifestation of the sacred (assuming, for argument's sake, that Moses was a PC in a role-playing game, of course), or when Krishna confronts Arjuna, etc.  These are instances when the DM (if these were events in an RPG) acts through the world to determine the sacred.

I disagree because I see this as post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.  The expressions of sacredness coming through the world by arbitrary DM fiat are justified by examples in these works after the fact.  The situations in which DM values and ethics are expressed in game are explained by the DM being God.  Instead of The Tanakh, The Gospels, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, etc. being the model for the intrusion of DM values they are redacted into being the excuse here.  Perhaps I'm misinterpreting Anon's argument, however, so I could be mischaracterizing what he or she is trying to demonstrate.

Well, I'm going to let Anon speak for him/herself here:
In the gaming of the 1980s and 1990s, before the anti-game master movement came into power, that sense of the sacred was inherent in having a game master embody the campaign reality.
Just as secular science can be expressed in formulae and books of rules or "laws" that can be leashed and driven forth by anyone with enough knowledge of science and/or its practical crafts, so the campaign's physical science is expressed in game mechanics formulae and game mechanics rule books.  Want to know the composition of water?  Look in a chemistry book and realize that (barring a miracle) water is always two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  Want to know how to cast magic missiles or aim a starship phaser?  Look in the rule book for the unvarying game mechanics involved. 
However, an individual game master would have his or her own aesthetics, interests, sense of humor, eccentricities, etc., many of which could be noticed and taken into account but none of which could be quantified into controllable rules because humans are not dry iterations of formulae and rules.

Interesting.  So far, so good.  I can't say I disagree.  DMs are human beings, after all and have foibles.  However, it is incumbent upon the DM, in order to be honest, fair, and provide the best possible service, to minimize these idiosyncrasies or at least make the players as aware as possible of them in order to best facilitate the players' enjoyment of the game.
So the player who was attuned to the underlying meaning provided by the game master's unconscious humanity--i.e. the sacredness of the campaign world--would notice that when this particular game master had to make a sudden judgment call about whether the horses were spooked, the PCs who had been kind to cats were more likely to be able to calm their horses.  A bad player would say, "Oh, Bill likes cat-lovers, damn his bias!" but a good player would say to himself, "Ah, I see, cats have something to do with the poetry of this universe." 
Similarly, the player would notice that moments of good luck came more often to those PCs who did not torture.  A bad player would grumble, "Ah, Mark's subconscious wussiness is giving an edge to the good PCs, and that ain't in the rule book for me to find loopholes, so damn him!" while a good player would think, "Hmmm, there seems to be a universal morality to this universe beyond what we can play 'rules lawyer' with."  Or the player would notice that this game master tended to describe safe magic fountains as silvery but cursed magic fountains as flashy, and instead of personalizing this as an eccentricity of the game master's descriptive habits, she or he would realize this is one more manifestation of the underlying patterning of the campaign universe provided by the game master who had created it for the players.
Here is where I start to take issue.  It is incumbent upon the DM to be conscious of his behavior in this regard.  If all of these situations are in-game (i.e. if the DM is not penalizing a person for out-of-game hatred of cats or vice-versa not rewarding a player for out-of-game kindness to cats) then it is fair game and the players should start putting two-and-two together and understand cats are somehow sacred in this reality.

The thing is, these ideas must be something the DM is aware of because he or she must present an understandable and believable world.  In other words, not torturing being a cause for receiving a little bit of luck, while not necessarily a quantifiable game mechanic, must be a part of the universe of which the DM is consciously aware.  This way, the players can start keying into these ideas and their characters can interact with the world more effectively.

The problem is when the DM is unconscious of these things.  Then it is arbitrary DM fiat and it is not part of maintaining a believable world that makes sense.  As Alexis says in How to Run, it doesn't have to make perfect sense objectively but just has to make sense enough to the players to facilitate suspension of disbelief (I'm paraphrasing a bit, here, I don't feel like flipping through pages and finding the exact quote--I'm lazy, whaddya want from me?).

Anyway, Anon continues:
These were not seen as acts of conscious or unconscious favoritism any more than an American would label karma as cosmic favoritism or accuse Jesus of favoritism for choosing apostles instead of letting anyone who could make a d20 saving throw become an apostle.  They were seen as an underlying pattern of meaning that any genuinely involved game master could not help but impart to a campaign by dint of his or her humanity, and they welcomed not resented. 
Of course, that all changed with the decade plus of anti-game master outcries.
Anon is right that the over-mechanization of game rules is somewhat problematic because it gives power to rules-lawyers.  However, I've played with really horrible DMs/GMs/STs who were pretty arbitrary and governed their games by fiat instead of trying to be impartial referees.  Rules lawyering became essential to survival in some of these settings but the thing is, if I have to resort to that then I'm not truly having a good time and I don't trust my GM/DM/ST/etc.  If I don't trust them and they obviously don't trust me, then what am I doing here?  I'd be better served doing something else with my time.

The problem here is the swing of the pendulum.  Sorry, Gygax and Arneson were not model DMs in my opinion.  Similarly, neither is the DM who gives players whatever they want without any challenge.  I think a lot of players convince themselves they've had a good time despite actually having had pretty terrible experiences both with tyrannical and lenient DMs.  Rules should not exist to shackle either DM or player but to provide an action resolution system, plain-and-simple and the more effective those rules are, the better they serve the needs of DM and player alike.

This means if the rules need to be changed to suit different moods, themes, and goals of both the DM and players, then by all means change them.  I love White Wolf's game system but I wouldn't want to use it too often in a combat-heavy setting with super-powerful demigods--its one of the problems I ran into with running Exalted last year.  Actually, White Wolf is well-suited to low-combat, investigation and interaction-heavy games full of intrigue, politics, mysteries, plotting, dealing, and rare, sharp, lethal combat situations.  Simultaneously, I wouldn't want to run such an intrigue-heavy low-combat game involving vampires or werewolves in D&D.  I mean, it could be done but I think White Wolf's system is much better calibrated for that sort of game.

The rules are a tool.  Nothing more.  Indeed, I certainly agree with Anon, here, that the fetishization and deification of rules have served neither player nor DM.  The search for the perfect system, though, is not a lot of fun, either.  Although I love 3rd edition/Pathfinder the rules-bloat is something I find problematic.  Granted, characters can be very easily customized and more interesting.  You can run an entire party of just fighters and have a great time because every fighter is different.

On the other hand, the DM is not God.  God has an agenda, the DM should not, unless, of course, that agenda is to provide a believable world with which the players can interact.  If anything, the DM should represent what Yehezkel Kaufmann calls "the metadivine realm" in his History of the Religion of Israel.  The metadivine realm is impersonal and can be called upon through magic and supernatural ritual to coerce, force, or bypass the gods in order to achieve an effect.  It simply exists and the gods themselves are subordinate to it (at least, in a polytheistic world).  If you're running a campaign set in a monotheistic universe where the Judeo-Christian God runs the show... well, the DM frankly should detach himself entirely from whether the Devil or God wins.  Even if the DM believes fervently in the Judeo-Christian tradition, his world is not the Real World, it is imaginary and the DM is presenting this world to his players for their entertainment not for the confirmation of his/her beliefs or to make converts.  Frankly, given an individual DMs beliefs, it may be considered a conflict of interests for a Christian DM to run a game in a setting where the Christian God is sovereign, especially if the players are not all Christian.  That's asking for trouble on all sorts of levels unless the DM can seriously reign himself in and understand that he's not running for himself or herself but to provide entertainment for his or her players.

Thus, while I agree with Anon that a lot of the anti-game master sentiment that has led to rules-bloat has been somewhat detrimental to the game, I feel much of it was a reaction to shoddy DMs when the hobby was still in its nascent stages.  I disagree, however, with Anon because I reject the notion of the DM as sacred or as some kind of representation of the sacred.  The DM is a referee period and the DM's job is to facilitate the best experience the players can possibly have.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Religion in D&D: Sacredness

How deep does the DM want the rabbit hole to go?  How well-defined should the religious practices, beliefs, and traditions be and how much should the DM demand the players conform to these?  Let's be honest, the lion's share of players won't be all that interested in a deep understanding and knowledge of complex religious practices, taboos, and rituals.  They're interested in killing monsters and getting loot, right?

Some players, however, will enjoy and appreciate the deep immersion in aspects of rite, tradition, and belief in a campaign setting.  Some settings will lend themselves very well to such detailed and complex concepts as ritual purity, for example.  Knowing the audience is important for the DM but as for myself, I prefer to run for a specific type of player and if a player in my game does not enjoy my presentation of a world then they are best suited to finding another DM.  Period.  No hard feelings.  We should all be adults about this.

So, it is with that caveat that I consider the building-blocks of belief and tradition in a campaign setting, especially one such as the Forgotten Realms.  The Realms has always been a favorite of mine, alongside Dark Sun and Ravenloft.  However, the ruminations I made for D&D in my last post on religion in the game apply equally to those settings as well.  It is not enough that gods and religions exist in a setting.  There must be some sort of expression of belief in the setting as well.

So, let's discuss the concept of sacredness in D&D worlds.  To begin this discussion let us start with a quote from Mircea Eliade's introductory chapter to The Sacred and the Profane:
The sacred always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from "natural" realities.  It is true that language naively expresses the tremendum, or the majestas, or the mysterium fascinans by terms borrowed from the world of nature or from man's secular mental life.  But we know that this analogical terminology is due precisely to human inability to express the ganz andere; all that goes beyond man's natural experience, language is reduced to suggesting by terms taken from that experience. 
...We propose to present the phenomenon of the sacred in all its complexity, and not only in so far as it is irrational.  What will concern us is not the relation between the rational and nonrational elements of religion but the sacred in its entirety.  The first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane.  --Eliade, p. 10

What this demands of the DM is to mentally divorce his running of the campaign world from the realities of Planescape and The Manual of the Planes, if the DM actually uses them.  Why do I say this?  Because these works establish a rationality for the multiverse of D&D that goes against this concept of sacredness that Eliade is identifying and describing throughout the work.  By building up a framework for the Planes and the dwellings of the gods, by giving the gods hit points and other statistics, they're able to be approached by players, interacted with, and heck, even killed and replaced.

When I hear stories of players who have achieved godhood in their games, I shudder to think of the damage being wrought to the sense of wonder and mystery endemic to the human religious experience as it is simulated in D&D.  Maybe I harp too heavily on realism, especially for a fantasy game (though that's another discussion entirely) but I want to run believable worlds in believable systems and this sort of thing just breaks it down too much for me.  Unless the game is purposely calibrated to simulate the heroic epic where the players are demigods like Hercules, the effect of the setting is diminished and the appreciation for the scale of the power these gods have and the distance they possess from mere mortals is traumatically reduced.

Does that mean the DM should entirely dispense with the Planes?  Absolutely not.  The DM can know that there's a rational system at work in the background so long as the players' characters do not know.  If a player is capable of divorcing his knowledge of the Planes on a metagame level from his character's ignorance of the outside universe, a sense of wonder at the majesty, terror, and mystery of the supernatural can be maintained.

That which is sacred is by necessity other.  It is otherworldly.  It is set apart.  In comparison to that which is sacred, that which is mundane or secular is offal.  Eliade describes how a tree struck by lightning can be seen as sacred because it was touched by something far beyond the understanding of the populace.  Stones, buildings, and objects can all be sacred and they possess a kind of uniqueness.  As a medieval studies professor of mine in graduate school once described it, sacred relics possess a sort of "holy radiation."  Nearness should generate awe.  These things should not be touched with unclean hands, these words should not be spoken with unclean lips, this sight should not be seen with unclean eyes, etc.  It's special in a way that is not rational but not random either.  There is reason for these things to be special but that reason cannot be contained in secular rationality.

This is something that has been lost in secular modernity.  Even Protestant Christianity does not have such a ritualistic and irrational reverence for the sacred because in Protestant Christianity that which is sacred is incapable of being perceived.  The Bible is just a book, the pages and ink just that--pages and ink.  The ideas within The Bible that are sacred to the Protestant Christian.  Contrast this with the Jewish approach to the paper and ink which comprise Torah scrolls, which should not be directly touched by human hands once completed and instead pointers are used or the handles are held, or the Muslim approach to the Koran, which is wholly sacred because it contains the words of Allah as transmitted by Mohammed.  The Protestant Christian is highly rational (yes, believe it or not) and highly secular, especially in comparison to adherents to other religions and belief structures both current and historical.  Indeed, I've argued elsewhere that Protestant Christianity, building upon the Renaissance, made possible the Enlightenment and the secular rationalism/humanism of Modernity.  Had Protestantism not arisen, the Renaissance would have been suppressed beneath tradition and doctrine from the Holy See.

But I digress (and that's an argument for another day).

Americans have a long, long legacy of Protestant rationalism.  Thus, we're not used to the idea of mystery like the Catholics (unless one is from a Catholic family).  Even then, American Catholicism is effected by that secular rationalism that the American Protestantism bears.  (NOTE:  Keep in mind, I'm not talking about Jerry Falwell, here, who may seem irrational in comparison to humanist/atheist/secular thinkers like Dawkins, Russel, Hitchens, etc.  This comparison is to ancient, medieval, and even modern religions not to actual non-religious rationalism and humanist or atheist secularism themselves.)

Therefore, it is quite likely that non-American players or non-Protestant players may actually have an easier time of dealing with this concept of irrational sacredness.  I can't speak for how truthful that may be, though, it's just a guess.  Nevertheless, Protestant and American players have a small challenge in accepting and readjusting their mentalities during game.  We have to forget that lightning is actually an electrostatic discharge that equalizes a charge imbalance between two regions of space separated by a highly resistant medium and remember what our ancestors knew--that the world was full of spiritual and supernatural power that we didn't understand.

NOTE:  To my Canadian, UK, and Commonwealth readers, of whom there are a few, please forgive me for not setting you guys apart as an aspect in this argument.  Since I'm not a citizen of your countries and haven't been raised there I don't feel qualified on speaking about any approach to sacredness in game except for my own native one.  I'm happy to hear perspectives on the issue, though.

Hence, we have to break with rationality for the purposes of immersion within a world that should actually function rationally.  Yeah.  I know.  It sounds crazy, right?  The entire point of suspension of disbelief being difficult or easy is the accuracy with which the system a) simulates reality and b) what doesn't simulate reality should still be governed by rational systems.  So, if a rationally believable religious system in-game is to be realistic then it should be somewhat irrational?  Wow.  Welcome to Postmodern/Deconstructionist D&D!

Perception does not equal reality.  Humans often mistake perception for reality all the time.  Even scientists, secular rationalists, empiricists, etc., all mistake their perceptions for reality as well--confirmation bias is, after all, a bitch when you have to interpret data.  No human is immune.  We are all guilty.  That's why belief has power.  Belief influences perception and therefore humans will approach reality based on their assumptions about it, no matter how right or wrong.  This is why postmodernism and deconstruction arose in the first place--as a critique of the assumptions and beliefs of post-Enlightenment modernity, secular empiricism, etc.

Thus, the perception that the waters of a river, no matter how polluted, have healing and purifying properties will see people bathe within it and risk infection.  It's irrational, especially when confronted with facts.  In the absence of measurable proof that the river has "holy radiation" and it can cleanse ritual impurities, we can claim that it's detrimental to bathe in it.  Well, that's all well and good but in D&D the gods are assumed to be real (clerics do cast divine magic spells, after all).  Indeed, in The Forgotten Realms, during the Time of Troubles the gods actually did walk the surface of Toril.  So, at least in game, you can have a river that is polluted and bathers risk acquiring all manner of nasty diseases but that bath actually can have a measurable spiritual effect--in metagame terms.  This makes for interesting dilemmas, especially if some characters are reaching for rational empiricism in a world where gods can walk the earth.

So DMs should seek to delineate sacred spaces, sacred phrases and words, sacred events and time, sacred histories, sacred tunes and music, sacred objects, sacred boulders or rocks, sacred trees, sacred animals, sacred geographical phenomena, sacred symbols, sacred bricks, sacred flames, sacred anything.  These things are sacred because the gods say they are (or at least the priests and shamans do).  They don't even have to have a mechanical effect.  The players don't have to know or not.  Keep them in the dark if you want.  It's easier on your book-keeping to know that if a player bathes in the River Ashaba in Shadowdale that he gains a one-time +1 to his Will saves against mind-effects he can write it on his character sheet.  It's more interesting if he doesn't know but you (the DM) do.  Then again, your mileage on that may vary.