Thursday, March 1, 2012

Roleplaying and Doubt

I've been integrating elements of doubt into the 10th Age since I began designing it a few years ago. For doubt and uncertainty form the core of our experience as human beings and I would feel remiss if I didn't include that uncertainty in a setting meant to emulate life (albeit a very fantastic life). At the core of our experience there is an eternal questioning, and enfolding that questioning into a game is an effort to recognize that and to reward it.

While types of existential doubt are manifold, the type of doubt I'm talking about here is something more basic. We generally assume that we can obtain information in roleplaying games, that the information will be correct, and that if it is not it is because someone is deliberately misleading us. This is a straightforward approach that is reminiscent of the modernist way of thinking. There is a certain truth, and the road to uncovering it is one that is generally linear; any potholes that we hit on the way may delay us, but they in no way invalidate the central the fact that our journey has a destination.

Maybe it was art school. Maybe it was reading Allen Varney's Paranoia. It was probably some of both. The notion of an unstable truth has interested me for nearly a decade, and I've worked these unstable and uncertain histories into the 10th Age. There are great mysteries that can never be answered at work at the heart of the setting, and that lends a certain mystique, a reality, to the world. And mysterious questions aren't the only manifestation of this tendency: there is conflicting information scattered throughout the setting. This is information which defies simple synthesis. Not all evidence will support all claims, forcing characters (and players) to pick and choose what evidence is relevant and what must be discarded or denounced.

Of course, not everyone needs to play on this level. The setting works just fine as a place where people pick up swords and kill one another. But given the option, I would like to think that these irreconcilable oddities make it a deeper and more realistic place.

There is another way in which these doubts function, also, and that is to help recreate a society prior to the homogenization and standardization of mass communication and publishing. Spelling inconsistencies are rampant because there is no single corpus of recognized spelling and grammar (outside of the elves, who have a homogenizing cultural tradition in the form of their paidea, the training regimen of classics that all elvish children learn). Not everyone believes the same things and not everyone even believes compatible things. There is as strong sense of localism and regionalism, because the ties that bind us in large geographical units in the modern world are weak or altogether missing in the 10th Age.

I think that doubt can be an important element of any campaign setting or game system, AD&D or otherwise. It is comforting to remove it, to give concrete answers, but it may be more rewarding to include it.


  1. Good point.

    I think that one way to demonstate doubt in work would be a thought experiment in which you compare two clerics (or priests) of different religions that each claim that their own god created the world.

    Each cleric gains divine power from their deity and feels that their faith and the power of their god/goddess given to them via their spells is 'proof' that the teaching of their religion must be correct.

    If you could cast a Detect Lie spell on each cleric and that spell showed that one cleric was lying and the other was telling the truth, it would possibly cause the collapse in faith in one of those two religions.

    I would therefore say that — in game terms — a lie is a concious decision to mislead and that if someone truely believes something, even if it is incorrect, telling that mistaken fact to others would not be a lie. In other words, I would argue that — in game terms — both clerics *are* telling the truth, despite the fact that what each one says is mutually exclusive.

    The same would apply if other spells, or travel to the Outer Planes could turn up 'proof' that one religion or the other was wrong. And, to be honest, even if the player characters saw what they *thought* was proof, it would be entirely possible that the rival deity was feeding them false information, in order to trick them into making claims that damage the standing of the other deity.

    I think that the search for the truth should be a continually evolving thing, especially as — in a fantasy game — truth involves the work of monsters, elemental beings, avatars and deities that are all known to be able to trick other people with magic.

    I think that there would be sages that would struggle with searching out ways to remove doubt and get to the 'truth'. But sages would not be some sort of collaborative team that unveils every truth in the campaign world. While one sage might be making a name for themselves with a theory that 'proves' a certain point of view is correct, another sage could be attempting to debunk their claims. Maybe both might be sincere or maybe one might be jealous of the fame of other sages and willing to lie in order to advance their position in the world. You might even get a counter-intuitive situation where someone says something convinced that it is a lie (but unknowingly is saying the truth) and another person sincerely tries to debunk that truth with a false belief motivating them to do everything in their power to discredit the other opinion.

    Fantasy worlds are mostly based on mythology of the past and usually fit in a lot more with philosophy than scientific methodology. So generally, what is 'true' is going to be what the wisest person tells you is true.

    1. I absolutely agree. There's so much room for doubt and undermining in any fantasy game. It lends an important air of mystery, but also helps to transport the game from the realm of fantasy-story to something closer to verisimilistic reality.