"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, September 9, 2023



In a recent interview, Chaosium's Jeff Richard discussed TTRPG criticism and whether these games can be viewed as "art." If you watch it before reading this, you'll have a bit more context where I am coming from in this piece. 

As I read through the comments the interview received, I was struck by--but not particularly surprised--how many people have been trained to belittle the hobby they presumably love and themselves by extension for participating in it. Many seemed ready and eager to make themselves, and their experiences, small. How odd for a hobby which is entirely about Walt Whitman's line, "I am large, I contain multitudes."

I read things like "it is just game." "It is just play." "It's all about luck." I found myself thinking yet again how indicative this all was of the quiet hollowing out of words that has occurred the last two centuries. Words have meaning, and when they don't, when they become meaningless, we end up where we are today where even truth is now a meaningless concept. 

Because I agree. RPGs are "games," and they are "play," and they are about "luck." But these words mean something to me that I don't think they mean to some of the critics, and because they do, I am ready to argue that roleplaying is not just an "art," it is also a "rite."

Rituals of Battle and Play

As a graduate student, my thesis advisor was the late Alf Hiltebeitel, who passed away just this year, on my birthday. Alf had been one of the top specialists in the great Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The latter was his primary focus. He wrote a series of brilliant books on the character of Draupadi and her cult, as well as studies of the concept of dharma in the epic. Yet one of his earliest works is the one I want to reference here as our gateway into a discussion of RPGs, art, games, and ritual. Alf's The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata was a stunning piece of research, full of new insights. It also shaped how I think about rituals and games.

A poem sixteen-times the length of the Bible, the Mahabharata is a descendent of the Indo-European epic, cousin to the Iliad and Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Norse sagas, etc. Scholars suspect these stories all descend from a single ancient source because of similar themes (cataclysmic wars) and the repetition of very specific phrases. For example: Ved. śrávaḥ ákṣitam = Gk. kléos áphthiton “imperishable fame”; Ved. máhi śrávaḥ = Gk. méga kléos “great fame”; Ved. dātā́ vásūnām = Av. dāta vaŋhuuąm = Gk. dôtor heáōn “giver of goods”; Ved. sū́ryasya cakráḥ = Gk. hēlíou kýklos = Old Norse sunnu hvél“wheel of the sun”; Ved. áśvāḥ āśávaḥ = Av. aspåŋhō āsauuō = Gk. ōkées híppoi “swift horses”; Av. pasu vīra “cattle (and) men” (a merism for the totality of a character's possessions). These are just the most common examples. 

Before we go on, for any of this discussion to make sense a very short summary of the Mahabharata is in order.

The story is about the end of the third age and the beginning of the fourth. The Earth (the Earth goddesses specifically), cries out to the gods for aid. Men have grown corrupt. They lie, they cheat, they steal. The despoil the land and do not treat her with respect. The gods must perform a ritual to make this right.

Several of the gods incarnate as mortal men, the Pandava brothers, the heroes and protagonists of the story. Dharma (cosmic order, rightness, truth) incarnates as the eldest brother Yudhishthira. Indra, king of the gods and thunderbolt-wielding warrior, incarnates as Arjuna. Vayu, the tempestuous berserker wind god incarnates as hot-tempered and bull-like Bhima. Finally the twins, Nakula and Sahadeva are the incarnations of the Ashvins, who are dawn and dusk but also psychopomps and healers. 

Yet above all of these is Vishnu...who incarnates as Krishna. See, the Mahabharata exists at a transition point between the old Vedic gods and the emerging Hindu ones we are familiar with today, such as Vishnu and Shiva. Thus Vishnu is portrayed as a god above the gods, and Krishna--while not the main character--is the chief string-puller, trickster, and puppet master of the epic.

Finally, the Earth goddess herself incarnates as Draupadi, who becomes the wife of all five Pandava brothers. There is a special linguistic connection between Draupadi and Krishna, because Draupadi is also called by the feminine form of his name, Krishnaa. The name means "the dark one," but the fact that they share this name is a subtle reminder to the reader. The Earth called out to Heaven to set things right. So Draupadi and Krishna are the two instigators of these events. 

The Pandava brothers are pitted against their cousins, the Kauravas (who naturally are the earthly incarnations of demons). They are fighting for who will rule the kingdom. While the conflict is settled in the cataclysmic Kurukshetra War, it is all actually triggered by a dice match. The dice match sets the story (and the end of the world) in motion. And this brings us back to gaming.

Rolling the Dice

Growing distrust between the two sets of cousins leads to the suggestion of a game to "relieve the tension," a dice match. The Kaurava bring in a ringer however at the last minute, "swift-fingered" professional gambler Shakuni who will be playing on their behalf. Yudhishthira is suspicious, of course, but because he vowed never to refuse a challenge plays anyway. Shakuni wins every round, over and over, as Yudhishthira wagers and loses the Pandava's armies, chariots, riches, possessions, and lands. Desperate, Yudhishthira wagers and loses himself and his own brothers. Then he loses their wife, Draupadi.

When Draupadi is dragged into the room and told her freedom has been lost, the Kaurava attempt to shame her and disrobe her. But again...remember the two Krishnas are the prime movers of the epic. Miraculously they are unable to remove her sari, which keeps growing and growing yard after yard. As they are all terrified by this miracle, she then challenges what right Yudhishthira had to gamble her if he had already lost himself first. Cowed by Draupadi's rage, they agree to grant her a boon. The Pandava and she get their freedom back, but must go into exile. It is during that exile that they will plan their revenge.

In the 21st century, we tend to think of rolling dice as "just" a game. But I invite you to think about it as the ancients did. Yudhishthira abides by the results of the dice game because that is what destiny ordained. Forget probabilities or randomness. The dice match was a sacred thing because Fate determined its results. Yudhishthira was meant to lose.

There is some suggestion that dice--or similar instruments--might have been used before ancient Vedic sacrifices as a way to read the future, to get a sense of the auspiciousness or inauspiciousness of performing that particular sacrifice. Priests might roll dice or draw lots and from the results determine whether or not to proceed. And this brings us back to Alf and the argument he makes in The Ritual of Battle.

As mentioned above, the Mahabharata as we know it is a conscious pivot away from the old Vedic gods (who were worshipped through sacrifice) towards deities like Vishnu who can be reached through bhakti, "love" or "devotion," instead. This is similar to the same shift between Old Testament worship practices, such as the extensive types of animal offerings listed in Leviticus, and the latter New Testament refocusing on faith and love. But what is really intriguing about the Mahabharata, is the idea that reading, hearing, or otherwise experiencing the story is the equivalent of performing a sacrifice. In fact, the epic seems structured that way.

The traditional Vedic sacrifice is being played with on two levels. First, in terms of the story, the entire Kurukshetra War is a Vedic sacrifice, or as Alf phrased it, The Ritual of Battle. It begins as a divination (the dice match), and ends up a sacrifice of life by a priest (Krishna) upon an altar (Draupadi). Draupadi was, in fact, literally born from an altar in the narrative. Her father is conjuring a son and she appears from the altar as well. Further, as Vedic altars were hourglass shaped, Draupadi is constantly called "altar-waisted" to remind us of her significance. Krishna invokes the gods, the Pandava, delivers the sacrifice, the armies, and in doing so restores the rightness of the world (more on that below).

But on another level, sitting in the audience and simply listening to the Mahabharata was like performing a Vedic sacrifice. Just sharing in the narrative was said to have all the same benefits. Hold this thought in mind as we get back to roleplaying games.    

The Words We Use

Roleplaying game. Let's start right there.

Think about the ritual of this, the magic being invoked. You sit down at the table, and like Yudhishthira surrender your fate to the dice. The dice are divination, revealing the path of your character before you.

Now think about the power of playing a role.

Earliest Greek drama emerged as ritual. The actors, masked, were believed to be invoking and incarnating the gods. The fact that is was oral mattered; the Greeks believed in the living power of the spoken word, and even Socrates wrote that when something was written it lost the power to grow and change. When you play, you sit at a table and you become someone else. You are invoking a presence that is not you and experiencing existence through its eyes. 

What on Earth could be more powerful than that?

This is another call back to the Mahabharata. After losing the dice match, the Pandava go into exile and to disguise themselves they play roles. Yudhishthira, having lost everything gambling, assumes the role of a master gambler. Arjuna, the ultimate warrior, becomes a transgender dancer. Bhima--always eating--becomes a master cook. The twins become farmers. What is crucial here is they are roleplaying...and by roleplaying they grow stronger and are prepared for the war ahead. They pretend to be what they are not and it helps them expand as people.

"It is only a game, Drew, get a grip." Game. Game. Sure. Just a "game." But that word, which for you might mean "meaningless play" (because everything in the 21st century is apparently meaningless) meant nothing of the kind in the initial use of the word. The Old Gothic gaman meant "to commune with, to participate in." It was used for serious business like hunting (we still talk about fish and "game") and martial practice. "Ga" simply means "with" and "man" means, well, people. So a game was initially to participate in an experience with other people.

By the way, as an educator, one of the first things you learn is that through games and roleplay people learn. Yes, it is pretend, but it is how we become bigger than we are right now.

"It's just 'play.'" Yes it is. But what does "play" mean?"

The earliest definition we have is the one that nails it. It meant "cultivate." When you are playing, you are practicing. You are learning. Again. You are growing. Just a game and just playing make absolutely no sense to me given the origins of the words. Unless you subscribe to the Orwellian Newspeak of the 21st century, these words as dismissal should mean nothing to you too.

Now let's get to my favorite. Luck.   

When you sit down to play an RPG like RuneQuest or King Arthur Pendragon, and you fumble a roll, you might blame "bad luck." "Luck" to us is a fluke, a meaningless thing. It is a random outcome. But consider the origins of the word, and consider Yudhishthira's response to the dice match. Luck comes to us from a PIE word that meant "omen, mark, fortune" and was connected to fortune-telling, using dice, runes, stones, or whatever to determine what Fate had in store for you. This is in fact where the "lot" in "drawing lots" comes from as well. Indeed, the names of the god Loki and the goddess Lakshmi both derive from the same root as luck (he was a bad omen, she an auspicious one). So in the original sense of the work there was nothing random about it. Luck was what the universe had in store for you.

So let's sum up before the finale, shall we?

Every time you sit down to the table, create a character, and let the dice guide you...you are performing rituals that people have been doing for thousands of years. You are engaging in the ceremonial experience of becoming someone else, and experiencing situations you might never otherwise encounter. The dice, and their outcomes, reveal the destiny of your creations. You are performing a ritual, and therefore, art.

Let me throw the last few words at you.

Ritual, rite, right, rhythm, and art all come from the same PIE root, the  PIE *ar(ə)-ti-. They are related also to the Sanskrit Ṛta, which was the precursor of dharma and meant the order of the universe.

Understand what is happening here. What is being said.

When you create art you contribute to the order of the universe, to the "rightness" of it. You become part of its cycles and "rhythms." You align yourself with the harmony of the universe and that is also part of a rite.  That is the purpose of why rituals are performed.

Because we are, all of us, so small and so trapped in out own skulls. The experience of being "other," the ritual of play, is art. It allows us to get out of the narcissistic little prisons which are all the rage in the modern era, and to be bigger. To be other. To see the world through different eyes.

So the next time someone asks you why you are into roleplaying games, ask them, "why aren't you?" It is art. It is magic. It is sacred.

Do not feel the need to apologize.




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