Friday, February 10, 2012

I Play A Cleric

So says the Spawn of Endra:

I play a cleric in Carter's Lands of Ara campaign, and Cleric is a class that back in the olden days always seemed fairly lame. Not really a super Fighter, not really a great Magic-user. Maybe with the passage of years I've figured out the mechanics that make a B/X/LL Cleric pretty awesome. Maybe I've figured out that in real life I generally act like a Cleric without meaning to. That's just how I behave. But what is it that I'm trying to do for rest of the team?

A few years back during my dissertation work in archaeology in Belize, I was talking to a newer project member who was trying to figure out how to get her project going. She had hundreds of questions about how she was going to understand the (seemingly infinitely complex) interactions between subsistence farming decisions and practices of the local Maya farmers in the village we were working with. One evening as we talked she had multiplied the questions and the possible confounding factors to the point of an intellectual deadlock. If there are hundreds of variables each varying along hundreds of confounding axes, you've instantly got tens or hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of variations to account for. And there is no way to conceive of a dissertation project that will account for them all.

I went through the ideas she had and laid it out, pragmatically. Here's what we (I) know about maize farming here. Given your interests and the questions you're posing, here's what I think you should focus on in this field season. I think you can advance these 2 or 3 ideas out of a million very productively in the next 4 to 6 weeks. You can make these the core of your proposed dissertation, and then you can elaborate on them as you learn more.

And she nodded her head and said "Okay, that sounds right. I'll focus on that."

After a little while she said to me "You're going to be a really good professor. You're really good at keeping people from freaking the fuck out."

As it turns out this is one of my talents as a teacher, in the lab or in the field. I hate intellectual panic. I hate fear of the unknown. I hate the idea that there are areas of knowledge that are only appropriate for some people and not others. I argue and act for the democratization of science, and the inherently democratizing nature of scientific practice when done well.

Coming to play a cleric after all these years of disdain for them I now see that what I describe above (i.e., my behavior) is inherently code-driven. If one doesn't want to attribute an over-arching moral code to it they don't have to. I don't have to, explicitly, when I play D&D. But I do play such a pragmatic and righteous cleric -- one who is willing to smash in heads of prisoners, fly headlong into battle, probe the inner workings of local politics on the off-days in town, to beat back panic, fear, ignorance, group-think, and superstition. Ostensibly in the furtherance of democracy. I suppose this is the Enlightenment ideal applied to D&D. (Or an Enlightenment ideal applied to D&D, anyway.)

And consider the role of Keeping People from Freaking the Fuck Out:
You Turn Undead, cast Bless, Prayer, Holy Chant, CLW, etc. You Detect Evil and Magic. Later Dispel Magic, Raise Dead, etc. Those spells cap the freak-out "Game over, Man!" levels for many encounters. And the cleric also bashes some heads in to boot. In these situations the cleric has to be the most tactically aware player to be effective -- for the party to be effective. Argues I.

So if I find myself acting like the Cleric in real life (in the field context anyway), this brings up the age-old question: "Why play yourself in a fantasy RPG when you could be anything else that you can't be in real life?"

Good point. I guess that consciously playing yourself well is a difficult first step in RPGs, and then playing someone you're not well is much more difficult. That's where I'm at.

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