The Basis of Reality; The Basis of Fiction

As I continue working away on Play Sorcerer — and I do! — my brain constantly sees what I read and how I’m writing other projects in terms of the book.

This past summer I was reading Endless Things, the last book in John Crowley’s amazing Aegypt cycle. I was with my family at Spofford Lake in New Hampshire and came across a passage I meant to reference for Play Sorcerer.

I ended up putting Endless Things down so I could Game Master a game of Sorcerer for my nephews and nieces over several days. It’s the end of the year and I’ve only picked the book back up. I started again at that passage I found. It struck me again, and so I thought I’d share it here:

“Except for brief moments of ontological doubt such as anyone would have, Kraft had always known that the physical world – this earth and its universe of stars, its gravity and mass and elements, its living and dying stuff – was the base layer of reality. What we think about it is mere evanescence and spendthrift; what we hope dies with each day; we impose our inexistent notions and grids upon it, but earth and the flesh abide.

“According to Dr. Pons, though, it was actually just the opposite. To him, physical matter had no real existence at all; it wasn’t different from human, or divine, ignorance. It was an illusion, in fact a hoax. The slightest and smallest human emotion felt by the inward incarcerated soul is more real than any aspect of materiality. And more real in turn than all those emotions, all tears and laughter and love and hate, are the conceptions of the mind – Beauty, Truth, Order, Wisdom – which give to materiality whatever form and worth it has. Most real of all is the world beyond nature and even Mind: the realm Without, utterly out of reach, the realm of the Fullness and God.

“What Kraft had learned, in those first joyous labors of imagination long ago, was that, different as Dr. Pons’s inverted universe might be from what is in fact the case, it is necessarily very much like the world inside a work of fiction.

“All the myriad material things that we, in our universe, touch and use and love and hate and depend on – our food, our flesh, or breath; cities and towns, roads and houses – in a book these things have no true reality at all. They’re just nouns. But emotions are quite real; there are tears of things, and they are really shed, and real laughter is laughed. Of course. And in a book intellectual order is the most real of all, governing, sustaining reality – the Logos, the tale issuing from its absent, hidden Author.”

I find this passage revelatory for the difference in the kinds of focus different people want to bring to their roleplaying games, what they want from them, and where the fun is for different people.

For some, building a “world” that feels as substantial as the real one is the goal. Knowing where every item is and what is at hand is the goal and pleasure. Or, I’m sure, to the greatest extent that is possible in the circumstances of a roleplaying game session.

For others, and this would include me, the “reality” of the game is as described by Crowley via Kraft in the character’s notes about fiction: The substance of fiction is not the tables or bread, but the hearts of the characters.

This does not mean the tables or bread do not matter. It means that they are present with less force than what the characters feel. And, in turn, it is what the characters feel that strikes the flint of action, which makes the tale move forward.

If you look at games like Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age…, Polaris, Hero Wars, Riddles of Steel, Burning Wheel, Primetimes Adventures among others, with their Beliefs, Spiritual Attributes, Kickers, Forms and so on, you see “narrative mechanics,” not “physics mechanics” driving the game. These narrative mechanics become the chain drive for the game, with the descriptive elements of how hard someone lands a blow being added on top of why someone landed the blow. But the why is the part that matters most.

I suppose I don’t need to, but I will, note how huge the difference is between folks who want to make sure the world is “real” and those looking to build story first. The anger and frustration that “the other side” exists has wasted so much bandwidth it’s ridiculous. It’s hard to discuss these things on the Internet, it seems to me, because people assume all sorts of crazy things. Several people have assured me, in conversations over the years, that in a narrative focused game, things will just happen willy-nilly-all-crazy “just to make a better story.” Ignoring the fact, of course, that if any of us was reading a novel and things were happening all willy-nilly, we’d put the book down pretty fast. The obligations of fiction remain obligations, no matter what the medium.

But there are differences of focus. And this is the main point I want to touch on. When Crowley writes: “And in a book intellectual order is the most real of all, governing, sustaining reality – the Logos, the tale issuing from its absent, hidden Author,” he is touching on the organizing order of the games I listed above. Beliefs in Burning Wheel and Forms in In A Wicked Age… are part of the reality of the fiction — with greater substance than any sword. Does this mean, once more, that swords do not matter? No. But they are tools used to express the qualities of the characters, the qualities being their feelings and emotions and desires and hopes and hatreds.

The Author of a game of Sorcerer is in fact the Authors — all of them, sitting at the table. The intellectual order is based on the definition of Humanity; the definition of Demons; the Prices; the Telltales; the Kickers; the NPCs, the Objects, the Locations the Players have written on their character sheets; the values of Stamina, Will, Cover and Lore; the descriptors; the Starting Demons; and situation and background notes the GM has made.

Boom. Everything grows from that. And everything is on the table, known to all the players apart from the Game Master’s notes — and these notes should have been grown from the open notes of the Players’ character sheets. (And what are the character sheets in a game of Sorcerer but the Player’s notes, comparable to the Game Master’s notes, but simply known to all.)

These are the elements of the “intellectual order” that Crowley mentions as the basis of fiction. The elements with the numbers — the Scores of Stamina, Will, Cover and Lore — are just portions of the order of the game. Their purpose in the mechanics is simple and elegant. As noted many times, they do not serve the function of Abilities found in some other games: One cannot uses a Score in Sorcerer simply to see how strong a character is, as one could quantify Strength in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Stamina in Sorcerer is only used when tested in conflict with another character or force; when a player has said, “This conflict is worth it to my character.” This quality of “worth it” is, of course, what the game is about. This is the heartbeat of characters in the kind of fiction Sorcerer creates. “Worth it” is not about conflict — it is about the characters and objects and locations on the Player Character sheet — the daughters, friends, lovers, books of knowledge, graves and so on… the things that mean something to a Player’s character.

It is the issue of “worth it” that drives the stories. The Game Master does not have a story or plot or encounters or climax prepped out in any form, because who knows what the Players will decided is worth it for their Player Characters three sessions in. Five sessions in. Ultimately what Sorcerer play is about is the Players discovering over time what they think their characters truly do value.

And what is this value based on? The “smallest human emotion felt by the inward incarcerated soul.” And how do we measure how these values are being acted on? “…the conceptions of the mind – Beauty, Truth, Order, Wisdom.” Or, in the case of Sorcerer, the particular concept of Humanity. And how are these concepts moved into action to reveal these emotions of the characters? Not through a “world” that would hum along even if no one was around to play with it, but through the actions and decisions of the tales Authors.

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