Tabletop RPGs and Understanding Chaotic Probability

The gamemaster screen for the excellent Mörk Borg

Chaos Theory is often misunderstood by those who have never actually looked at it to be the simple triumph of randomness over order. It is in fact the natural replication of order, but in an imperfect and ever-evolving way whose specifics are unpredictable but its patterns recognizable. Outlier events dominate when they occur, but are rare. Nothing is certain but patterns exist. A humanities equivalent might be ‘History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.’

It has become increasingly apparent to me that explaining the deficiencies in how dominant ideologies of the present day process events needs a simple and readily accessible analogue for the general populace. Sure, my habit of blaming the extreme and (supposedly) opposite wings of monotheism and postmodernism for being the partners of maintaining an obsolete neoliberal order in our present age of global stupidity and breakdown is something I maintain is correct, but its also inaccessible to many. To get why I have this opinion requires an explanation of historical events and materialist philosophy that most people would not be interested in, if they even have the time for it. People know something is wrong, and they know that most of the people hired to explain these concerns away are lying to them or out of touch. They also know that many of the people proposing alternatives are very intense and extreme. Thoughtful but not formally educated people generally find the extremism of wingnut rhetoric and the hollow rear guard denials of unhinged centrism equally alienating. Surely, there is no panacea for our problems. Likewise, we clearly have to start looking further afield than the presently acceptable and ascribed solutions. Absolutism and relativism both are failures when taken to be universal principles. Abraham and Derrida both have much to answer for in their own special ways. Philosophy, politics, even the ways people communicate are hobbled. As do those with money and power who patroned them for their own ends. Probability, not certainty is the most important thing that must be accounted for by anyone who wishes to have a sensible opinion.

So how do you introduce the idea of a pragmatic probability to a general audience? By talking about real life places where it applies. Where both chance and skill interact together to create a situation where preparing and improving oneself is rewarded, but always under the knowledge that the roll of the die or the shuffle of the cards has final say. You can improve your odds always, but you cannot achieve certainty even a you do so. This can be analogized in many ways. Gambling, sculpture, game theory, the study of active volcanoes, traditional wargaming, your grandma playing Bejeweled. The way it should be talked about is determined by the nature of your own audience as well as what you know best on your own terms.

For me that is tabletop role playing games. At least, outside of geopolitics. But once again, more people are likely to be familiar with the former than the latter-especially when it comes to the fundamentals of practice. These are games where someone sets up a story and other players go through it not unlike a multiplayer computer game, but with the final determinator being not a software program but the actual game master, a human as capable of dynamic response as the players are.

I was introduced to tabletop RPGs as a kid in the mid-90s with Second Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Call of Cthulhu. By my early teens around Y2K I was already running Call of Cthulhu games as a ‘Keeper’, better known as a Dungeon Master (from DnD terminology) and henceforth referred to as a Game Master to include all potential games. I have played, and most often ran, games ever since in a variety of systems. Call of Cthulhu remaining my constant favorite with many others jockeying for my affection right below it. I tend to prefer more tone and story driven games to ‘crunchy’ rules-heavy ones, but as my Edinburgh-based former Pathfinder team can attest, I am also capable of running the more war-gamey ones as well. But even with my less complex preferences, it is important to me to run a game where dice rolls and chance play a major part so that the experiences transcends mere interactive storytelling and predictability.

Dice go beyond just pass/fail and enter into a new realm where there are multiple kinds of successes and failures and varieties of responses. The non-mathematical storytelling element that responds to roll results allows both the game master and the player to think far more creatively than any computer game could allow. At the same time, the random element means that no one is fully in control. What emerges from this interaction between fate and human input is something neither entirely determined nor entirely free. One in which dice might doom the best prepared players and spare the most incompetent, but only as outlier events. You can never achieve certainty, but you can increase your odds through smart builds and smart play. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. Over time, the proportion of players who play wisely (as well as creatively) will be the ones more rewarded. Not only in enjoyment of the game, but in material benefits to their character in the game-world.

Even games where the players are pretty much guaranteed to be doomed the longer they play, such as Mörk Borg or Call of Cthulhu, this can serve as a kind of death analogy. We are all going to die one day so why try to maximize performance? Well, because you make gains along the way anyway-at least for a time. You’ll think back on your story of how you got there as you die, most likely. Its not about the destination but the people you met along the way. Sure, the knowledge gained in Call of Cthulhu will drive your character stark raving mad, but it is still knowledge. And knowledge can be many things from power, to a greater appreciation of the arts, to a lessening of the fear of failure. Having a character that survived long enough in that famously lethal game to become a stark raving mad and phobia-riddled savant of occult lore with an impressive library of forbidden tomes is one of my greatest accomplishments as a player.

But for most people who don’t share my pseudo-tantric black metal world view this might not be so effective. That is fine, as most tabletop rpgs aren’t like the examples above. In traditional fantasy or science fiction games one gains power and riches the longer they survive and keep adventuring. From the many Old School Renaissance games up through present day DnD Fifth Edition (the best and most accessible DnD version hence its surging popularity right now), there is enough danger and reversal to keep you on the your toes but the rewards are worth the attempt by any standard. Perhaps most interestingly, there also exists a variety of games between these poles that do a good job modeling both the power fantasy element of traditionally popular games with the more morally ambiguous and complication-riddled side of the darker ones. Here I am thinking about Werewolf: The Apocalypse (and other World of Darkness settings), Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, and The Dying Earth RPG. These are games that specifically work into the gameplay immense ups and downs to create a roller coaster of experiences where the character is always growing, but not necessarily in a linear fashion or through constant victory.

The Conan game, in a great nod to its source material, actually has specific mechanics for both incentivizing winning gold and fame and also having to use these acquired resources to recover mental and physical health through debauchery and carousing. If you want to keep gaining stats you have to keep adventuring, but if you want to keep adventuring you have to recover through squandering your ill-gotten gains. On top of this is the momentum/doom system where successes lead to more die for rolls and failures compound into more counter-die for the game master to use against the players. The players and game master end up trading literal dice to increase their probabilities in rolls they want to fudge up, turning near misses to near hits (or vice versa). Fate can be played with, but only temporarily as somewhere down the line ones accumulated dice-karma will come back for them. The Dying Earth RPG takes an even more direct approach, with all rolls being based around six sided die with 1 being an critical fail and six being a stunning success, greatly increasing the odds of a ridiculous outcome in any direction. The game is built specifically so that epic failure is as entertaining and almost as desirable as epic success. The GM rewards players who play into their extreme results with a sense of panache with experience points, regardless of if those results are a failure or a success.

Even traditional games on the ends of the tone spectrum have variants that fudge the line. DnD has the Planescape and Dark Sun settings to create a darker and more surreal or survivalistic tone to its normally high fantasy system. Call of Cthulhu has Pulp Cthulhu, which adds an bit of Indiana Jones style punching out cultists and traveling the world for treasure to the staples of madness and unspeakable horrors lurking under the surface. Interwar dungeon delving with a cosmic horror tone.

The fact is that tabletop gaming still does what its more popular computer based descendants cannot do in both randomness and in player input. (There is one possible almost-exception to this rule, however). Anyone who has played-and especially ran-these games enough knows no plan for a module, be it the module itself from the game master or the player’s tactics at tackling it, ever survives fully intact upon contact with the random elements. But at the same time, a well designed module or player tactical plan is going to work far more often than a poorly thought out approach. Much like navigating life, politics, the sciences, metaphysics, the stock market, or even the overall span of societies, tabletop rpgs show in a clearly communicable way to a general audience the interplay of forces both outside and within a person’s control and how those come together to create a probability-dominated world where nothing ever turns out as you plan it. This unpredictability is part of the intrinsic nature of the game and usually makes perfect sense of even outlier events in hindsight. Dice results may disappoint or elate you, but they don’t lie. And how you respond to those stark numbers rolled out on the table can be everything. There is always an excuse for failure at something challenging, but never one for not being prepared as much as possible before the challenge roll.

The Universe of Repulsion

 

ravenstealssunboddhisatva

My own depiction of Pacific Northwest Raven as a Tibetan wrathful Bodhisattva, or perhaps anti-Bodhisattva. 

Concurrent with my 3 years of delving into speculative realist philosophy has been a simultaneous exploration of the historical intellectual thought in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I remain as much a materialist and atheist as I have ever been, but find the intellectual journey of these religions far more interesting than that of the Abrahamic faiths I have been surrounded by for most of my life. In some ways I believe they can show glimpses of what intellectual life would be like in the western half of Eurasia (and its descended colonies) were it not for the rise of Christianity. Particularly in Japan, Mongolia, and China, where foreign religions largely integrated with pre-existing polytheism rather than simply replacing or expunging them. The only places in the west where such syncretism occurred is in Afro-Caribbean influenced places, some Native American modern beliefs, and New Orleans voodoo-and those of course are heavily dominated by surrounding Christian cultures.

Hinduism had outright atheistic and materialistic schools of thought, and Buddhism denies the immutable soul and upholds philosophical inquiry as dialectic exchange. Certain concepts, such as ‘Indra’s Web’ (shared by both), a concept of the universe as a web containing droplets where each droplet reflects the others ad infinitum, have a remarkable level of confluence with Whitehead’s process theory or to be much more contemporary Bryant’s ‘democracy of objects’- with the notable exception that the philosophical trends are expressed materialistic, and the religious concepts usually are the opposite. Still, much of this way of thinking effectively did not exist in the west from late antiquity until Shopenhauer and its interesting to follow its trends as thought in parts of the world where it was in effect never interrupted.

This bring me to my main point here with the post, and its a problem I have with both process theory and other adjacent to the new speculative turn schools of thought as well as those eastern religions. The problem is quite simple: sure the universe is all interconnected, but this certainly does not mean that it is all *one*.

One of the reasons I have always been partial to hard polytheistic cosmologies as cultural complex is because while there is the acknowledgement that the pantheon of (I would hold, symbolic) figures all takes place in the same world, they are fundamentally different and sometimes at odds. While many philosophical trends, secular and eastern, are superior to the brute certitude and absolutism of Abrahamism, they still can’t quite bring themselves to see the power of chaos and repulsion. In fact, repulsion seems one of the few universal values that can be said to observably exist.

I generally find metaphysics that are not grounded in actual science or natural philosophy to be nothing but faffing about and New Agey nonsense, and fortunately my background in being an astronomy nerd is in fact much longer and more robust than that of philosophy. Dark Energy, so far considered the dominant force of our universe, immediately comes to mind. If the concept of negative mass can be proven it will contribute to this. The fact that gravity is universal and omnipresent, but also weak compared to the forces of energy (dark or otherwise) also makes a case of interconnections not being enough to overcome repulsion. But this is, first and foremost, a humanities blog and there the immediate effects of repulsion seem most obvious.

In international relations we find the natural desire for all states, no matter their official ideological inclination, to balance and counter-balance each other so as to maintain the maximum freedom of action in an anarchic inter-state world that is possible. In culture and politics we see competition leading to rivalry which leads to divergence, and unity only possible when a majority is willing to countenance the use of force to keep such unity alive. Societal bonds break down both for oppression from an increasingly alien ruling class as well as in times of immense complacency and opulence. New mergers are often only possible when two groups fear a third group more, in which case unity itself is the product of an even higher level of repulsion. Foreign attack or invasion is the best way to create unity, because the level of general repulsion is often held to be greater than that which occurs naturally within a society when not under existential threat. When things are left to their natural anarchic state, repulsion is the norm. It is unity that is the artificial construct and temporary state, beneficial as it can often be. But repulsion seems to be the baseline all is working from on the macro-scale. As the Arab proverb goes (paraphrasing here): ‘My country against other countries, my region against my country, my town or city against my region, my family against my town, me against my family.’ What we see here is that unity is only truly reliable when a greater force of repulsion is present. Even those insufferable kinds of people filled universal love show this by the scorn they heap upon those that deny their vision and the hierarchies of condescension they create from those who follow the doctrine they espouse down to ‘the unenlightened’ who do not.

Some schools of thought in speculative realism, especially Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology, adopt a view more closely to what I am getting to with repulsion. Despite being more on the process theory side of things (as, I think increasingly, am I), Bryant talks about such issues as well. These thinkers speak not only of withdrawn objects and and the core of objects being inaccessible, but also of the real material basis for divergence between objects in thought. As stated before, I myself am not into the metaphysical side of things enough to bother as much with this aspect, but I do think that one can acknowledge that everything is interconnected through processes while still rejected the idea that ‘all is all one’-unless that one thing is base struggle. Interconnections need not mean monism or uniformity. In fact, rivalry and division are also a form of being connected to things. A kind of connection through repulsion-which is still a type of relationship of course but one of many rather than of one.

All of this is to quibble with semantics of course. But I feel for those of us who study the competition of societies vis-a-vis each other, or the unpredictability of change in any form, it is a useful rhetorical tool to have. It also has the positive value of being able to repel hippies and anti-intellectual ‘its like, all one mannnnn’ type people who deny the very real existence of power struggle and the importance of divergences in thought while still engaging with some concepts common in discourse that are not themselves wrapped up in Platonic forms or absolutism.

Or in other more flippant words, maybe interconnections through repulsion is the true, ahem, ‘middle path.’