Know Your Rhetoricians! – Gorgias, Nothing, and Magic Words

It’s Friday, so it’s time for “Know Your Rhetoricians.” We’ll take a look at a famous rhetorician of the past and how some of his or her philosophies could be pertinent to your Tabletop RPG experience.

How do I describe blue? Since my eyes don’t work in words, how can I then compose something that will give you the impression of blue through your ears? I could make comparisons, but you may not perceive colors in exactly the same way that I do. Perceptions vary from person to person, and yet, they are what we use when trying to understand the world. On a related note, if words are all I have to work with, can I construct them in such a way as to take away your free will or ability to reason? Con men use a combination of fast talk and pressure tactics to get us to make ill-informed and badly reasoned decisions, but is that our fault for falling for it, or are well-put together words so potent as to rob us of our capacity to refute them? Both of these questions, among others, were touched on by Gorgias of Leontini, one of the first rhetoricians and a member of the Sophist movement.

Gorgias was reportedly born sometime in the early 5th century, B.C.E. He was born in Sicily and established his reputation as a speaker there. He was nearly 60 when he traveled to Athens to ask for Athenian intervention for Sicily against Syracuse. His oratory proved so popular that he stayed in Athens and taught rhetoric, becoming incredibly wealthy, as well as incredibly unpopular with philosophers whose words have survived better than Gorgias’ own. Plato, in particular, assailed the Sophists in a dialogue titled Gorgias. Plato’s version of Gorgias wasn’t much more than a straw man for Socrates (acting as Plato’s POV character) to eviscerate, as Plato condemned rhetoric as nothing more than flattery.

As you might have guessed from the above paragraph, we don’t have a lot of Gorgias’ work to refer to anymore, as much of it has been lost. Two partially surviving documents gives us two ideas to work with in our games. On the Non-Existent, or On Negation, is one we have fragments of that posits a negative concept of absolute truth. One of his speeches, the Encomium of Helen, is a defense of the lady with the thousand-ship-launching face of Trojan War fame. In it, Gorgias argues that speech can have a drug-like power to take over our minds and lead us to place we would not have otherwise chosen to go.

The Nothing Problem

In On the Non-Existent, Gorgias makes a three-part argument about existence – that is, existence apart from what our senses perceive.

1) Nothing exists.

2) Even if something existed, we could not perceive it.

3) Even if we could perceive it, we could not express anything about it or explain it.

The idea is that our senses make up our whole knowledge of the world, and our senses are imperfect and ruled by our subjective mind. As a result, there cannot be objective, transcendental truth. I have mentioned before the problems of trying to portray relativistic morality in games like Pathfinder or D&D, where good and evil are forces that manifest themselves in the powers displayed by people, as well as in creatures that are, in and of themselves, manifestations of those otherwise unseen forces. Of course, a Gorgias-like skeptic, who mistrusted senses, would have several questions – the Paladins claim to be able to detect evil, as do the clerics of the many churches. Why do we believe them? Why do they ascribe the name “evil” to the force they detect? Isn’t it curious that the “evil” always seems to be people in opposition to the church?

If you’re not feeling like breaking down D&D cosmology, the concepts of Gorgias on nothingness are probably more pertinent when you’re playing a game in a world that looks more like our own. If our conception of the world is derived through our senses and our senses can’t be objective, how do we get close enough to knowledge to function? Gorgias and the Sophists challenged their students to argue all sides of an issue until they came up with the things that would be a workable truth for them. Even if you’re not interested in that deep a dive into rhetorical clash, spending time asking yourself what your PC believes is a worthwhile exercise. In Gorgias’ view, their beliefs would come from what they had seen. Tying your beliefs to your experiences is one of the simplest ways to both fill out your character’s background and their worldview simultaneously.

The Power of Words

In the Encomium of Helen, Gorgias states, “discourse is a great potentate, which by the smallest and most secret body accomplishes the most divine works; for it can stop fear and assuage pain and produce joy and make mercy abound.” In other words, speech can stop and start a whole host of emotional reactions, taking charge of the hearer and leading them around. For role-players, sometimes words are essential, but most games also include mechanical skills for the exchanging of words, where, when dealing with NPCs, those exchanges can often reach seemingly mystical powers of persuasion.

Consider this thread over at the Paizo forums, where the poster asserts that a sufficient series of Diplomacy checks should acquire his PC magic items from a shop at cost, as though Diplomacy was enough to make the arcanist in question utterly devalue his own labor. The abstraction of rhetorical skills in game can periodically blur the line between good argument and magical enchantment. And that’s nothing when it comes to the PCs themselves. Most games draw the line at letting the PC with all their skill points invested in pretty talk use that ability to make the PCs dance to their tune, but not all of them – Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire game makes social encounters run on a similar mechanic to combat ones, with the words flying like ripostes and thrusts until one person is worn down and concedes the argument.

Personally, I am ashamed to say I am still on the fence about this point. On the one hand, I absolutely believe that people without a natural gift of gab should be able to play charismatic PCs and reap the benefits of spending their points that way. On the other hand, I understand concerns about overreach in terms of rhetorical power, as well as legitimate worries about player agency. Mark me down as “It Depends” for this one, even if Gorgias wants us to believe that Paris’ sweet-talking of Helen means that she was blameless in fleeing to Troy.

Questions of relativism or the power of speech can seem incidental when it’s time to get after the dragon, but they are a huge part, even today, of exploring the human condition. There’s no reason why we can’t get a little wiser with our dungeon crawl or Elysium intrigue. If nothing else, a Sicilian who convinced the Athenians to make a solid gold statue of him is probably worth a consideration every now and again.

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Book Corner: The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop RPGs

Jennifer Grouling Cover’s The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games is an outstanding effort to open the doors to authentic rhetorical and sociological study of the genre system. She effectively challenges writers and scholars who have labeled TRPGs as non-narrative or simply an antecedent genre to Computer RPGs, deftly critiquing the value-based progressive mindset, which dismisses that which came before as inferior. It still only serves as an opening effort, however, and several of the areas she tries to explore are limited by her own RPG experience, as well as her choice to focus exclusive on a single Role-Playing Game – Dungeons and Dragons, 3rd Edition.
She begins by addressing a tendency in the literature that has gone before to dismiss Tabletop RPGs as, well, something that has gone before and is no longer really a thing. It’s a natural result of all the Computer RPG developers who talk about the influence that Dungeons and Dragons had on their conceptions of gameplay. The problem is that not only have Tabletop RPGs not gone the way of the dodo, the forms that sprung out of D&D’s influence leave certain capabilities of the Tabletop RPG behind, such as the potential for true narrative agency on the part of the players. Lest anyone think that the book is solely for academic analysis of TRPGs, there are plenty of things players and GMs can benefit from in the text. The discussion of varying levels of authorship in an RPG narrative could make us all a lot more self-reflective in how we’re building stories when we play.
The book does suffer from a limited worldview. Cover played in a campaign of 3rd Edition D&D, and in a homebrew world with a plot devised specifically for the players involved. Most of us have had this sort of experience, with varying levels of success, at one time or another; however, I’m not at all certain that it is representative of the typical TRPG experience, to say nothing of the typical D&D or Pathfinder experience. Narrative agency is in short supply in the typical Pathfinder Society module – she references RPGA, which she found unsatisfying, but PFS even removes the aggregate effect the RPGA allowed the players to have on the storyline. I’ve previously talked about how D20 is an enemy-focused game, which can make the PCs somewhat plug-and-play. It’s interesting that she brings up the old Choose Your Own Adventure stories, of which video games end up being just a highly elaborate and quite pretty version. I think pre-written modules, and even Paizo’s Adventure Paths, probably fall somewhere on the spectrum between a pick-and-play gamebook and a truly autonomous narrative, but that’s hard to evaluate without study of some non-d20 games.
In our author’s defense, it would have been a much larger book to take on the entire genre system of Tabletop RPGs, but I think her work definitely points the way for deeper exploration. First might be acknowledging that TRPGs are a genre system – while TRPGs have several similarities between them, even the reason for playing can vary by game, and the way in which design questions are answered leads me to believe that we won’t see the whole picture if we call TRPGs a single genre. Call of Cthulhu is only 7 years younger than hoary old D&D, and posits a completely different narrative experience from its slightly older fantasy cousin. How we’ve developed conceptions of narrative control, and how the pendulum has swung in the industry between role-playing and game-playing are both threads that could be pulled on for future study. The study of TRPGs also presents a tremendous opportunity for anyone interested in how negotiated outcomes work within rules structures, or how narratives develop in collaborative environments. For gamers, it’s a chance to peer a little deeper into the meaning of what you’re doing those evenings with your friends and your dice.

One Versus Many

I have long acknowledged that Math is my mortal enemy; however, I never expected it to create narrative problems in my RPGs. Unfortunately, it does. It does so quite a lot, in fact. There is a critical difference between many of the stories we read to inspire us and the games we create to emulate those types of stores. That difference is the number of heroes. Campbell’s Hero’s Journey appears over and over again in literature, but is more than a little ill-suited for RPG story design.

Game writers often point to the many forms of fantasy literature (High Fantasy, Sword-and-Sorcery, Historical Fantasy), as well as genres like pulp and science fiction as their inspirations for creating imaginary worlds for the game players to play in. When we’re inspired by Beowulf, Siegfried, Conan, Solomon Kane, Shea Ohmsford, or Thomas Covenant, the theme of a solo hero struggling to save the world, we’re creating a template in our head that is inspiring in literature, but troublesome in RPGs. If the average number of heroes in the story is one (plus secondary characters) and the average number of heroes in an RPG is 4-6, we’ve established wildly different expectations, and we haven’t even begun questing yet.

But what about that 1,000-page gorilla, The Lord of the Rings? Quick – how many fights did the Fellowship win before they came apart and went in half a dozen separate directions? How many PC groups have you been a part of that would spend even half as much time running from the enemy as did the Fellowship, even when they were at full strength? The Lord of the Rings is a cross between mythologizing and a man trying to work out his feelings about war. It’s a rich and lovely story, and its atmosphere certainly informs a lot of fantasy RPGs, but its narrative is anomalous to the typical RPG experience.

At present, Paizo and Catalyst Game Labs are some of the only people who consistently write adventures – most companies focus on elements for players to utilize (Because, rationally, players make up a larger market and the RPG market deals in very small margins). These adventures tend to have a single antagonist. The problem of crossed expectations expresses itself in the antagonists of adventures in two ways. First, the antagonist is capable of smearing any one adventurer across the floor, requiring a team to work together in order to achieve victory. The end result is often a narrative that highlights the relative fragility of the heroes (“Epic” fights usually involve casualties, and those casualties happen at nearly an incidental level – a single round of attacks or a single spell producing death). Conversely, the antagonist, as a practical matter, is incapable of defeating a whole party of PCs. When one side may take Z actions per round, and the other side may take Zx(4 to 6) actions per round, the math renders the less active side from a credible threat to a grind. What you end up with is an enemy that can clearly not defeat the heroes, but can kill one or two of them, and it’s simply a race to the bottom. Increasing the threat of the enemy only pushes the battle into an area where the party will die because they cannot harm someone so much more advanced than they, and decreasing the threat makes the enemy undramatic.

I think we need a shift in our thinking as to adventure design, but it requires us to acknowledge that we’re not really telling the same stories as Robert E. Howard or Terry Brooks. The solo hero against the world has found a good niche in video games: Dragon Age, The Witcher, Skyrim – all of these allow a player to have that story experience.

As writers and GMs, we need to start looking outside the box for inspiration: there are team-based adventure stories out there. Team-based comic books, like X-Men, The Avengers, or JLA. Films like The Dirty Dozen, or even Inglorious Basterds. You can even find them in books: Ari Marmell has a great story about a band of evil humanoids learning to work together to survive The Goblin Corps. We also need to start rethinking how we approach antagonists. Groups of villains can balance out the action economy and keep any one bad guy from being able to simply annihilate good guys with a sweep of their hand. The result is closer challenges, encouraging cooperation, and, hopefully, better stories.

Catch a clue

Rules in a game can set the boundaries of what is possible, but they also inform what sort of game we’re playing. As I mentioned in my last post, game mechanics can give us clues as to what sort of stories a game is a capable of telling well. We can add to this that good game design encourages the types of stories that the rules were written to support. Two similar approaches to the work of horror author H.P. Lovecraft show how just a subtle difference can clearly define a new literary sandbox for GMs, players, and writers to play in.

The original game of Lovecraftian horror is Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium, Inc. Call of Cthulhu demonstrates a few of the challenges when writing a Role-Playing Game set in Lovecraft’s milieu. One of the overarching themes of Lovecraft’s writing was mankind’s helplessness before the cosmic horror of the Great Old Ones. Utter helplessness is not a popular theme at most RPG tables, where players are willing to accept a tremendous amount of challenge, but also usually want to win at the end of the day. As a result, several of the pre-written adventures for Call of Cthulhu incorporate some manner of victory condition, usually predicated on stopping cultists, that Lovecraft himself did not really present as an option in his own stories. Several of Chaosium’s narratives have to break from convention, because the convention runs slightly contrary to the preferences of the audience.

But even if some of the stories give the PC’s a sense of personal agency, the rules actually work to reinforce a sense of helplessness. Chaosium likes to refer to its Basic Roleplaying game engine as intuitive and easy to play, and it is, but it also incorporates rules for rolling dice to determine just about everything, a mechanic that works against the agency of the players. There’s a roll of the dice to determine how well you comprehend your own language, whether you can have a clever idea, or even if luck breaks your way today. Rules like this make things simpler for a GM, but they also reduce his or her agency in keeping the story moving. Moreover, they perpetuate and reinforce the idea that PCs are relatively helpless before the grand arbiters of fate – their dice. So while the mechanic reduces a GMs control over the game, that same GM can use the sense of helplessness to the dice in order to undergird Lovecraft’s worldview on human insignificance.

Contrast this with Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane Press’ mystery game, using the same literary backbone. Pelgrane is also looking to tell horror stories, but they’re primarily telling mystery stories. Most GMs will tell you that mysteries are one of the hardest things to run under most game engines, as clue-finding is usually dictated by dice rolling. If a detective fails to find the critical clue in a mystery, the mystery may well go unsolved. Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE engine discards this premise entirely: if a PC has a skill related to the clue in question, they find the clue. This rule is tied directly to the narrative drive of mysteries: We presume Sherlock or Miss Marple will find the clues, because that’s how the story progresses. The plot consists of where the clues take us – they are means, not ends. GUMSHOE gives you the clues and then lets you follow them to their destination, which is usually unpleasant in Trail of Cthulhu, because it’s still Lovecraftian.

A simple mechanical change creates a significant literary change in the style of storytelling. Always dig deep into your games, trying to understand what the rules want you to do, in addition to what they allow you to do.