Mythic and Prosaic, Hand in Hand

Following up from this earlier post, I spoke with the wife a bit more about what it is she liked about Tim Power’s Last Call. With it comes the question of, “How do you pull this off in a traditional RPG?”


The element that she highlighted with Last Call was that there were parallel stories going on, each significant of their own accord and interwoven through each other. There was the mundane problems going on where there were hitmen and what-have-you. But then there was this mythic element, where the actions taken also tied in to and reflected a larger coherent myth. And the mythic aspects reflected back into the prosaic world, sometimes miraculously.

Using Last Call as a specific example, on the one hand you have a general play for power with elements of the supernatural drawn in. But on the other hand you have aspects of the Fisher King myth woven in there as well, impacting the effects and in turn impacting them.

In a novel you can seamlessly blend these elements together because, as an author, you are in control of the details and can weave it together pretty tightly. But the wife and I could not think of how you would work something up like that in a traditional roleplaying setup. Especially without leaving the players feeling like they’ve been railroaded. That last is extra hard. You can focus success or failure in a scenario around some myth that’s floating around in your head, but more likely than not you’re just going to have pissed off and frustrated players.

In a traditional roleplaying game (which I will use in this post to refer to immersionist play in the actor stance, you jackasses), you’ve got the players portraying characters that are presumably clueless about the larger myth that is going on while the GM is the person that has the big picture but can’t really make the players follow the cosmology. (Hell, sometimes it’s just hard to get people to make characters that fit in the setting. “I’m Batman!”) Running a simple murder mystery game alone can be very hard. This sort of game seems to take a few steps farther down the “ZOMG that’s hard” path.

In a more story-game style setup, I imagine you could have some sort of collaborative exploration of the myth as you go along, having the player group as a whole building the myth as you go along. But I really like the idea of being a player who doesn’t entirely know what is going on but gets swept up into the events and having to respond to the events in the game from that point of view.

As I started on this post, a few games came to mind that have elements of this in them, but I honestly haven’t played most of these so I’m not sure how well any of them actually work. (And, after I thought about it, I don’t know how well it would work if you blended them all together.) So here’s a recap of some existing games that I think touch upon these ideas.

Nobilis

One of the functions of being a Noble is that you are able to switch back and forth between mythic and prosaic reality. In mythic reality the sun is pulled around the Earth by a dude in a chariot. In prosaic reality the Earth rotates on an axis so that the sun appears to travel across the sky relative to a local observer on the surface.

So with this you could pick a lock in a conventional fashion. Or you could switch to the mythic version of things and smooth talk the spirit of the lock to open for you because actions in mythic reality reflect into the prosaic reality. And sometimes prosaic reality fills in the back details based off of crazy things done in mythic reality. So if you shoot down the sun with your bow and someone replaces it, the news will report it as an eclipse. And records will indicate that the eclipse was predicted.

Additionally, a key way for Excrucians (the Big Big Bads in Nobilis) to attack Nobles is to undermine concepts in a symbolic fashion. Reinhold, Sorrow’s Regal, might suddenly find Excrucians seeking to undermine the nature of Sorrow, perhaps causing tragedy to be a thing to celebrate or removing causes of Sorrow. The more subtle and insidious the damage, the bigger impact it will have.

Reading through examples in the book, like the attack on Treachery in the book, the thought of it reads like hot and burning awesome. But how do you impliment that in play yourself? I guess on a certain level you need to be a devious bastard that knows how to really mess with player’s minds. But I don’t grok how you would readily run this on a casual basis. I often get the impression that people who actually play Nobilis have far more mundane sorts of games than you read about in the book. (But feel free to correct me on this.)

The notion of concurrent mythic and prosaic realities, as well as the highly symbolic attacks, fits well with the ideas I suggested at the beginning. So, outside of the gross difference in power level, the cosmology seems like a good fit. The challenge, I think, is that it still doesn’t address how to have the events in mythic reality form a larger role than just “create color on the spot for the rare occasions when players remember that they can interact with mythic reality.” The book is high on awesome, low on practical advice. =(

Fading Suns

One of the things I found interesting in the back of FS 2e was the notion of the Passion Play style of game. (With one of the creators of the game reading this, I’m going to feel like a huge dork for getting this wrong.) The basic premise involves working with the notion that the events of the games will ultimately be interpreted in the future as having some greater significance. It suggests 3 techniques towards doing this:

  • Debriefing at the end of the session where the players look back at the events in the session to see what could be interpreted as having larger symbolic import.
  • The GM picking a theme that the game will revolve around (like “The Triumph of Good Over Evil”) that he does not immediately tell the players about. They will know that there is a theme, but not what it is. When the players take actions in the game that support or go against the theme, they get a bonus or penalty as applicable.
  • Critial successes or failures gain significance within the larger myth that the game is telling.

    I like this a lot and I wonder how well this would fit with a larger myth within the myth. So, if instead of a simple theme of “The Triumph of Good Over Evil” it had a theme of “The Legend of the Fisher King.” It does seem to bypass the problem of railroading players into a particular myth, by just having it nudge reality instead of being tied into it. On the other hand, it also seems to gives more space between the prosaic and the mythic. So you could technically play the entire game without tapping into the mythic stuff… which… is less than satisfying. It avoids the whole reason for trying to run this sort of game in the first place.

    But as I think I mentioned before, I’ve only played Fading Suns once and only got about a half hour of actual action. I’ve certainly never used the Passion Play rules.

    Star Wars Saga Edition

    In a similar vein, one of the new rules they’ve implimented into the new Saga Edition is “destinies.” It’s what some people point to when you whine that Star Wars Saga Edition is really just an overrated miniature wargame. The idea seems fine, though the implimentation seems a little poor. The general schtick is that you have some sort of destiny: You’ll destroy something, redeem something, corrupt something, whatever. When you take steps towards that destiny, you get some bonus for 24 hours of game time. When you take steps away from that destiny, you get a penalty for 24 hours of game time. When you complete your destiny, you get a permanent bonus and may choose a new destiny. Having a destiny also means you get Destiny Points, which are cooler versions of Force Points.

    We’ve been using destinies in the Star Wars game I’m playing in, but I think my experience has been atypical. We haven’t had any destiny bonuses or penalties as yet. I don’t know if it’s because we haven’t done anything notably towards or away from our destiny or if, due to the fact that we will often cover a year in one-to-three sessions, a 24-hour bonus is largely irrelevant. I honestly haven’t thought to ask. Now, we’ve spent most of the game also not knowing what our destinies were. We all said we wanted a destiny for our characters, but no one seemed to have an idea what sort of destiny they wanted. So it wasn’t until this last session that we had an inkling of what it might be.

    The more individualized approach for personal myths might be a good variation for individual paths. One person may be in the role of the Fisher King, another might be Isis, etc. Hmmm…

    Unknown Armies

    An aspect of Last Call that I see reflected in Unknown Armies is that of the Avatars. In the novel, there are several instances of characters going through great lengths to better resemble a particular archetype: ritual cleansing, avoiding certain foods, etc. Similarly, by following taboos and acting within the role of one of the archetypes in the universe, characters in Unknown Armies can gain powers and possibly even ascend to godhood (possibly replacing the previous person to ascend into that archetype). The key difference, I think, between Last Call and Unknown Armies is that some people just are the archetypes. Other people go to great lengths to take on the role instead and usurp the role from others, but some characters were just born in those roles and have a significant advantage over those that don’t.

    Still, the Avatars take a really strong step in the direction of Last Call and could really help to establish the feel I’m looking for.


    This whole musing started with me wanting to do a Delta Green/Unknown Armies style Star Wars game, and my wife indicating that she’d want to play if it was more like Last Call. Which made me wonder if I could do a Star Wars game that drew in elements of Last Call. I mean, I’d originally imagined it as mainly being a bit more Delta Green, with PCs dealing with manifestations of the Dark Side and maybe poaching a sanity system from somewhere. But this really pushes the limits of what Star Wars is conventionally defined.

    To draw elements from what I discuss above, could I run a Star Wars game where there’s an animistic mirror to the universe (a la Nobilis) that can be interacted with on some level? Perhaps having ways for people to shoehorn themselves into power without being properly Force sensitive, instead drawing upon extensive rituals to cast “spells” or taking on archetypes to gain powers (stealing from Unknown Armies)? It could even be that some PCs are plugged into an archetype without being aware of it IC (borrowing from Fading Suns and Star Wars Saga Edition), gaining bonuses and penalties as they work in concert with or contrary to their myth? To condition the players into thinking of it in terms of myth, there could even be a debriefing period at the end of the session to discuss whatever symbolism came into play during the game, again drawing inpsiration from Fading Suns. This debriefing could help build within the player’s minds a perception of their characters being caught up in some larger myth or drama.

    But would it be Star Wars? I’ve run a few Star Wars games over the years, and I can never seem to run straight Star Wars. I’ve done mash ups of the universe with The Matrix, The Illuminati, Call of Cthulhu, Resident Evil, Illuminati, Fading Suns, etc.

    Yes, there were lightsabers and wookies and starships. But I never came away from the games feeling like, “Yeah, this was Star Wars.”

    And the other element is: Should I even worry about it?

    Input and commentary welcome.

  • 16 thoughts on “Mythic and Prosaic, Hand in Hand

    1. carpe_noir

      good, thoughtful post. Too bad none of my comments will match it for consideration or depth. In no particular order:

      * give up chasing Star Wars (by name) already, I don’t think you can ever find it as a GM. Maybe as a player. But the different perspectives of GM and player mean that you as GM know too much about what’s going on.

      * I bet it would be easier to find that buzz without the tight coupling to existing media properties.

      * Can you identify what the cool bits are in your understanding of the larger Star Wars zeitgeist that really thrill you? Then stick them into something else, like the way and did for Crimson Guard?

      * this isn’t beer and pretzel gaming, it’s going to take conscious effort both before and during the game by everybody to reign in reflexes and impulses that are contrary to what you’re trying to do.

      * get the players on board in advance, and don’t let anyone play who isn’t enthusiastic about at least trying to work towards your goal. Make sure they understand that — in this scenario — the character may very well have to react in a way that the player feels is wrong. GM and Player need to be in agreement about that in a way almost never happens in “immersionist play in the actor stance, you jackasses”. Otherwise the choices they find themselves in won’t match the mythic import.

      * Collect info and provide it to prospective players in advance, like instead of “The Legend of the Fisher King” summarize the legend, lay out the archetypes, elements, conflicts, and call out how these are realized in the game universe. What would the the “land” map to in the SW, anyway? Everything I can think of lacks at least mythic impact, and most lack dramatic impact as well.

      Or maybe I’m completely full of it.

    2. colomon

      Quick thoughts: It’s been a while since I read it, but seems to me that most of the characters in Last Call know a pretty good hunk of the myth going on around them (though not necessarily all the same bits) and manipulating the myth for their own ends is part of what is going on in the story. So I think it ought to be possible to approach the matter fairly directly in an RPG. I think the Nobilis approach you describe may be sort of backwards — the nothing is prosaic, it’s all mythic on some level.

      I think the Star Wars universe is a really bad choice for a game like this, because we don’t have a very detailed/interesting mythology for it. If anything, considering the explicitly mythological roots of Star Wars, you might consider using Star Wars as the mythology rather than something classical….

    3. admin Post author

      Part of it is just that I just like the Star Wars setting and I enjoy blending it with ideas from other places. An older idea I’ve used that I still enjoy playing around with is the more Delta Green/Star Wars riff, where the players are agents (Imperial, Republic, freelance, whatever) tasked with dealing with “supernatural” threats. I’ve run such a game before under a previous edition of the game with a more beer-and-pretzels sort of group. With the release of the Saga Edition for Star Wars, combined with a growing fondness for the sanity mechanics from Unknown Armies, I’ve been reconsidering the idea.

      But I’ve come to learn that there are games that Jen will consent to playing in and games that she will not. So when I was noodling the SW/DG/UA game idea around, I asked her if it was such a thing she’d be interested in. Her response was what pushed me along this line of thinking.

      I certainly wouldn’t consider the “Last Call” style game to be a B&P game. I don’t think I could get Jen to play in a B&P game. But even then, it’s hard to get 100% sign on to any sort of idea. What often seems to happen is you get people who will say, “I’m in” without realizing what they’ve agreed to. Sometimes they just sign on because they like you as a GM and don’t put much thought into their ability to actually follow through. Sometimes they agree without actually reading what was sent out. Sometimes they’re in the group for some reason that has little to do with specific interest in that game: You have a regular group with rotating GMs, they got invited because you wanted their SO to play, whatever. (Really, the logistics of player base is a nightmare of a subject all to itself.) Getting 100% sign on to any proposed social contract has always been a challenge for me in any game I run, so that could be a huge stumbling block were I to move forward with this.

      As for filing off the serial numbers for Star Wars and using some other, similar, setting… That gets problematic. I think the big part of it is suspension of disbelief. I’m a big fan of 7th Sea, and I really like the idea of a “good parts version of Swashbuckling Europe.” But when I ran it for friends who were not big fans of 7th Sea… translating it was hard. We’d have lots of moments of:

      “So he’s Ussuran?”
      “What’s Ussura again?”
      “Not-Russia.”
      “Right, so yeah, he’s a Not-Russian.”

      Star Wars has the benefit of being recognizable. Even if you don’t get into the all the Expanded Universe nonsense, there’s a least a basic knowledge of Jedi, wookies, hyperspace, etc. Aside from my general reluctance to get involved in world building, there are a couple hesitations I have regarding it. The first is that if I do too thinly veiled of a knock-off, I’ll get to deal with the jokes about the Not-Jedi, not-lightsabers or whatever. If I make it a unique setting and just blend in elements of Star Wars that I like, then it runs the risk of being too alien of a setting. Assuming that I can even get the players to read the handouts, there would be a lot of having to introduce people to this new setting. Which is also a pain in the ass. I have enough trouble with introducing players to settings I’m familiar with. When I don’t have the setting as firmly established in my head, I start having to improvise more and try to remember what I’ve previously established.

      This isn’t to say that running in an established setting is a walk in the park, as I learned with Exalted. Having players who knew the setting pretty well was handy when I couldn’t remember or didn’t know something. It was annoying when I decided to consciously change something. =P

      With this idea in particular…? It may be better to create a new setting, with something of an homage to Star Wars, since this would radically alter the concensus universe of Star Wars. But my frustration with introducing players to a new setting, combined with having to decide on a game system for it that I probably have to house rule the hell out of… that may just kill the game in the bud. =T

      Yeah, I know. I’m an unhelpful curmudgeon.

    4. admin Post author

      I guess my perception of Last Call was a little skewed because the protagonist is mainly blundering through the dark. But now that you mention it… that could make this set-up a lot easier. And it would make simply using the Unknown Armies Avatars a little easier.

      I find that it’s easy to just draw in our own mythology into Star Wars pretty easily. Planets can become broad stereotypes for cultures and bring our own mythology into it.

    5. carpe_noir

      But where can you get the mythic power? One of the reasons myth works in fiction is because it is taken for granted that the myth is fundamental and underlying everything. The Force is the only thing in the SW universe that is power everywhere, and the Jedi treat it as a set of skills to learn, modulo the microscopic beasties in your blood. (Eps 1-III replaced the myth in SW with science: phailz!)

    6. carpe_noir

      All good points. I come back to the idea that to make this work it’s going to be more work then normal, so playing hardball with the social contract negotiations seems to be inline with the rest of it.

      I had a number of conversations with different GMs at ACUS about being this ->||<- close to not cutting people anymore slack about "Must contact GM before con." As in, "Sorry, didn't hear from you in time, please find another game."

      The more everyone is on the same page with something non-traditional (can I say “indie” here without pissing you off?) the less conscious awareness there would be in the game and the more revelatory it will be for players and GM.

      The flip side of universe familiarity is everyone has their own private baggage about what’s cool, what’s important, what they hate, and while there’s a common shorthand, there’s also individualness too. Hence the usefulness being able to extract your cool bits and drop them on a setting without so much baggage. I know I keep mentioning this, but the Crimson Guard game did that on top of Corwin’s Pattern/Three Musketeers which has had so many different versions and visions it’s become practically generic. Maybe something Shakespearean?

    7. nakedvillainy

      I’d have to agree with your take on the Crimson Guard. I think there was just enough common knowledge (Paris, Musketeers, Corwin) so you didn’t feel that you were flailing in an alien setting, but different enough that there wasn’t much baggage to deal with. Pre-gen characters also help in that way.

    8. admin Post author

      I’m always bad about being a hardass about social contract. Especially aspects that fall outside of the period of actual play, since I know how much life can get in the way. My aversion to conflict also feeds into that.

      Indie’s a fine word. It’s not that I dislike indie games. I’ve had a lot of fun with them and will probably continue to play them. Barring misfortune, I do plan on playing at Go Play! Northwest. I’ve just increasingly felt that when I say “roleplaying” it means something different to people who are chiefly into indie games, especially story games. The very phrase “actor stance” just makes my whole body clench. And I know I’m not alone.

      You’re entirely right about the private baggage. It especially becomes a challenge when you try to go against the grain with the setting. The more I think about it, the more I think my attachment to using Star Wars revolves around nostalgia and laziness. World building is, frankly, hard. At least hard for me. It was one of the (many) problems I had running the Night Watch/Day Watch game. Star Wars just feels so… robust. Whereas the NW/DW game ran afoul of me having too sparsely populated a game setting. =T

    9. admin Post author

      I guess it depends on where myth comes from. Is it something pre-existing? Or is it something imprinted upon some spiritual ether by consensual perception? Or something halfway in-between?

      Though it never comes up in the movies, the EU has infrequent appearances of belief systems outside of the Jedi’s perception of the Force. Especially when you get outside of the heart of the Republic. So you get cults, mystics, shamans, witches, monks, whatever. In more “civilized” portions of the galaxy, you might even have lingering deities from bygone eras. With the consensual reality view, it could be that the Force in these places have been twisted to accomodate this world view.

      From the point of view of a pre-existing mythic structure, it could be that there exist entities in the Force that interact with sentient races on some level. Perhaps they exist only in remote corners of the galaxy? Perhaps they are centered around particular planets?

      The original Cthulhu/Star Wars hybrid I’d come up with revolved around the notion that the Force was, fundamentally, “Dark Side.” Jedi learned how to access this power without becoming corrupted by it. But that Darkness still existed out there, as well as tentacled, non-Euclidean monstrosities that lurked at the edge of Known Space. In this cosmology, there could be alternate routes to taming the Darkness in order to tap into this power, perhaps even more ritualized routes drawing upon the mythic/racial/whatever archetypes.

      Hrm…

    10. nakedvillainy

      Difficult to compare, when I played in one and GM’d in the other. Strangely, I think the “not-Russia” stuff bogged us down. I think it would have run more smoothly if we’d said “Russia” and “Germany,” then explained the important differences between historical and Theah.

      The once-a-month gaming also destroyed continuity, but that’s a different kettle of fish.

    11. carpe_noir

      Okay, maybe this is just me, but the narrative power of myth comes from the non-logical, non-scientific connection between a character and the =fundamental= way the universe works in the story. It’s being caught up in the irrefusable and irrefutable flow of events and destiny. All that “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” bs may work against the human nature of an archetype, but it’s going to be useless against the avatar part of the archetype.

      It ain’t mythic if it’s statted out with skill levels, feats, or a quantifiable comparison (ranks or points) to another character.

    12. carpe_noir

      I kinda thought so. You can’t recapture the buzz using nostalgia.

      And world building is hard, that’s why you cheat and don’t tell the players your sources and inspiration. Take something, like Dune, change the names, swap out the whole spice and navigator thing, replace it with something bland and generic like psychic powers, and =never admit in public= or =to your players= that’s what you did.

      If you don’t give the players narrative control, you as the GM can’t ever really have the experience you get when reading a book or seeing a movie for the first time.

    13. admin Post author

      No, that’s an entirely valid point about the nature of myth. On a certain level it should be non-logical. But getting players to go with that sort of play is hard. Adjudicating it, especially when players try to exploit it, is even harder. So much of it becomes subjective that it’s also easy to have communication break down regarding it.

      And, if you have any sort of game system in place, as opposed to just a freeform structure, you leave players feeling frustrated about the value of their points. Granted, I often ignore mechanics whenever I feel like it, but it’s an aspect I at least try to keep in mind.

    14. admin Post author

      Take something, like Dune, change the names, swap out the whole spice and navigator thing, replace it with something bland and generic like psychic powers, and =never admit in public= or =to your players= that’s what you did.

      So, you mean like Fading Suns? ;)

      I don’t know that I want to recapture the surprise or novelty of seeing Star Wars for the first time. I just love the setting. I love tinkering with it. As a player, I want to feel like I’m part of such a universe. As a GM, I want to be able to help create for players the experience that they are part of that universe. So… I dunno. I have no great answers for this.

      To be fair, I’ll try and think on what it is that specifically appeals to me about Star Wars and see if I can come up with what specifically jumps out at me about the setting that makes me want to tinker with it in the first place and what could be extracted from it to form something else. Make that into another post farther down the road.

    15. admin Post author

      I figured I should add: Mechanics and what players spent their points on is a generally good thing to keep in mind as a GM, even if it’s something I often ignore and/or drop the ball on a lot. ;)

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