Friday, May 5, 2023

Old-School Advancement: A Lacanian Approach

Noisms over at the Monsters and Manuals blog has an interesting piece relating the Gene Wolfe book the Wizard Knight to high-level old school play. I wrote a comment in response:
As a hybrid approach, what about planar currencies? It won't have the Wizardknighting effect, but it may lend itself instead to a sword-and-sorcery texture. 

The doughty lord sits in his palace surrounded by the wealth of the ages and feels nothing. Gold has lost its lustre. Until one of his far journeying courtiers / wise soothsayers / demonic servants tells him of the blue crystal roses that grow on the sapphire beaches of the Nightly Shore. The fire in his blood is stoked once more, prepared for a deadlier and more glorious adventure than ever before. 

Maybe this sort of approach can be a buffer between gold-for-xp and wizardknighting. Past nth level, gold no longer gives xp, but each blue crystal rose is 1000xp. A few exist in this world, but to find them in quantity you must travel the planes! There may be many such currencies associated with various planes. Once the PCs are already planar travelers, switch to xp-for-planes or henchman xp. 
The idea of planar currencies is an intriguing one which I may develop more later, but this happened to dislodge another idea when I read the post. But first I have to introduce some rather obscure concepts. 

But I warn you, the crystal rose may be plucked only by a cunning stratagem...

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who in a series of very influential lectures until 1980 examined the role of desire within the Freudian tradition. Many of the ideas and terms he created and developed became part of the core not only of psychoanalysis, but also of other fields such as literary criticism. I don't claim to understand any of it in depth or extent, and I will instead recommend this review of Bruce Fink's A Clinical Introduction to Lacan as a jumping off point. There's just one little concept I want to borrow from that tradition. 

The objet petit a (the partial object, or the partial other) is the thing one desires. At the same time, it can never be acquired. To use a videogame analogy, the objet petit a is not the thing in the quest reward box, it is the quest reward box. When you're doing the quest, desiring the reward, it seems shiny and out of reach. Once you get it, there is a moment of satisfaction, but one quickly grows tired of what one already has. By this time, there is a new quest with a new reward. It's not that the objet petit a is really hard to obtain, it is not a thing which can be obtained at all. The objet petit a which can be grasped is not the true objet petit a

There is an exception to this: it can be acquired in a fantasy. 

Within the imaginary space of a fantasy, it is possible to acquire the objet petit a without it losing its appeal. It still appears as something else, but it keeps all the value and shininess it had when you didn't yet have it because... you don't have it. Except in a fantasy. 

That opens up a really weird question about characters in fantasy role-playing games and how their desires interact with those of the players. Can player characters acquire their partial objects?

Insofar as these are parts of a player's fantasy, they should be able to do so. But this is a role-playing fantasy game, the players are taking on the personae of characters in that world. Everyone from the most cantankerous grognard to the most avid storygamer will agree that these characters have desires and goals of their own, not necessarily those of the player. Should these characters, then, not experience the objet petit a? Should they, unlike a pure fantasy, be incapable of entirely satisfying their desires?

This makes some sense to me. When I think of players who have been good roleplayers at my table, and those who have not, it seems like this might be part of the distinction. Keep in mind that 'bad roleplayer' does not necessarily imply a bad player. My little cousin is, at age 8, a bad roleplayer, but still great fun to have at the table. The crucial difference is between players who have processed that their characters have goals and desires of their own, vs players for whom the character is merely a way to play out their fantasies. This behavior is less charming in adults, especially when the player's fantasy is one which runs counter to everyone else's fun. 

This is part of maturing as a player: no longer treating the game (and the player character) as a vehicle for fantasy alone, and instead role-playing a character who themselves has goals, desires, and, subsequently, fantasies. 

I think this may also be a hidden genius to the xp mechanic, which aids this roleplay in a very subtle manner. The character may acquire any number of desired objects in the game world, but they are only ever stepping-stones for the player, means to further advancement. Both player and character desire gold. The player, as in a fantasy, may be satisfied with this, but the character is the world would not be. Thus, the structure of experience points is created to drive the player to act in the same manner as the character. There is always more xp to find, and the player is thus encouraged to consider their character as an entity driven by something other than player fantasy. 

That brings us back around to noisms' idea of changing the xp-granting object at various points in the progression. At some point, gold is no longer enough to fill the slot of objet petit a, and so other desired objects must be found. At first they may still be physical objects, new and fascinating currencies or treasures. But eventually those no longer satisfy, and desire may turn instead to ascension through the plains, or the advancement of hirelings. I'm not especially partial to the idea of character 'arcs' in role-paying games, especially when they're planned ahead, but I am interested in the growth of characters organically. This occurs mechanically by leveling up and acquiring equipment of course, but also by the expansion of character influence, henchmen and hirelings, domain play, the character takes on responsibilities of increasing scope. The ratcatcher looking for gold in a tomb is not the same person once they're leading a small army of loyal followers. Perhaps it makes sense that their desires, mechanically represented by changing sources of xp, should as well. 

It's an interesting concept which could add a lot of texture to a long-term campaign. I'm tempted to build it into my own upcoming campaign now, though I'm not sure how to. Expect more on this subject.