This is RPG-ology #61: Procession, for December 2022.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally Game Ideas Unlimited: Procession, and is reposted here with minor editing [bracketed].
One day near the beginning of summer my wife sent me in a rush to get some medicine for her from the pharmacy. Thinking to avoid the traffic, I rushed out the back way, which dumps me on the main road across the street from the high school in the next town. There was something of a traffic jam there, a long line of cars, many with lights on, all trying to make a left turn into the high school parking lot. There was even a policeman directing traffic at the entrance so they could make this turn. I wasn’t particularly interested in going to the high school, and tried to ease out next to them to pass them on the right and head for town; one sounded a horn at me, as if I had cut them off.
Before I managed to creep up to the corner, the police car had moved forward to the next drive and stopped; this long line of cars (and I could see more than half a hundred already) was coming out the other drive, and I was blocked. The officer walked back to talk to me.
”I guess these people aren’t all going to the high school,” I ventured.
“Their son died. He was a ballplayer.”
I’m sure that was supposed to win my sympathy; it raised my ire. But I maintained my composure. “I’m just trying to get to the drug store to get some medicine for my wife.”
“Well, your wife is alive. Their son is dead.”
It occurred to me that the cop knew nothing of my situation but what I’d told him; whether my wife needed nitroglycerin to prevent a fatal heart attack or insulin to prevent diabetic shock or any of a number of other medications which could make a difference in her survival did not seem to enter his small mind. I got the impression that if I were rushing her to the hospital he would not have considered that more important than this funeral procession for a dead high school “ballplayer”. But as it happened it was nothing so urgent. I turned around and found another way to get where I was going.
I’m sure I’ve offended some of you already, and I don’t mean to do so. I have sincere sympathy for the parents of this boy. I subsequently learned that he died in an auto accident on his way to school one morning when someone ran a stop sign. Parents should not outlive their children. It must have been terribly painful for them.
But I somehow don’t think it was terribly painful for everyone in the interminable stream of cars that filed through that high school parking lot on their way to the cemetery. I somehow doubt whether the boy liked or even knew all those people. And I am forced to wonder whether there would have been such a warm outpouring of support for the family if the deceased had been the president of the honor society, or the captain of the chess club, or the first chair first clarinet in the band. It is this perverse obsession Americans have with athletes that annoys me. I don’t understand why these kids whose natural talents run to physical prowess are encouraged to believe that this is what matters in life, when in fact it is very much against the odds that even one person with whom you went to high school will ever play professional sports.
I admit that I’m jaded. Sports, to me, were always an excuse for people who were less intelligent and less creative to look down on me. Athletes wouldn’t give me the time of day or be caught sitting at the same lunch table with the likes of me. Girls who would jump at the chance to date a quarterback or linebacker or even a center would at my approach jump out of the way. Football particularly irks me, because to add insult to injury, all of the members of the band who were regularly snubbed by the football players were required to attend every game to cheer for them. And we had to wear those ridiculous uniforms, too. Football players particularly considered themselves better than honor society, better than student government, better than Junior Achievement, All-State Chorus, All-State Orchestra–they were It, because they were pretty good at something valued by…and I find myself at a loss to know by whom. They have all the skills necessary to become gas station attendants, fast food cashiers, grocery store clerks. With some training, they could possibly be lifeguards and construction workers and tow truck operators.
I don’t mean to denigrate either high school athletes or entry level positions in the service industries. What I want to illuminate is that our society seems to have a very warped set of values–we give an inordinate amount of praise and encouragement to children who exhibit strengths at things that will have very little value in their adult lives. Seriously, when was the last time you were anywhere where they decided to get up a friendly game of football? I’ve seen softball and volleyball at picnics, basketball and tennis at the park, golf and swimming at clubs–but football is something played by kids and professionals, and that’s about it. If you are one in a hundred, you might play in college (if you can go to college); if you’re one in ten thousand, you’ve got a shot at the pros. But the way we encourage kids you’d think their entire future would be determined by these skills.
O.K., we’ve established that I have a low view of football and of all efforts to promote it. I’m a serious misanthrope in this area–I won’t even buy candy to support midget football or help the athletic department get new football uniforms. But if I’m going to excuse this rant, I’m going to have to find a way to tie it back to gaming that’s more than just a group hug. But really, I’ve already thought of that.
When we craft our imaginary worlds, one mistake we often make is that everything makes sense. Granted, we can’t design worlds in which nothing makes sense (well, we can; but the Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass feeling would unnerve most players, and they’d quickly give up trying to deal with it sensibly). But reality has much within it that isn’t logical no matter how you turn it and twist it and consider it. In particular, people are irrational. They value things that have no use, believe things that contradict experience, encourage things that disadvantage them. So why should we expect that the people in our imaginary worlds would be more rational?
So your player characters risk their lives to stop the approaching orc raiding party, and so save the village; but the villagers, while showing token gratitude, are busy honoring the winner of the chess competition. The party are noted military leaders who have been decorated for courage, who have saved the colony; but the colonists are rallying behind the leadership of a college professor who is able to quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning. We live in a world where high charisma and physical skills impress most people. Our players often play characters who have these qualities; but what if we put them in a world in which intellectual achievement, or warm compassion, or domestic simplicity are most admired? It won’t really make sense to them; but societal values often do not make sense.
C. S. Lewis (I told you his name would come up again) wrote a piece, originally a preface to a translation of an ancient text, entitled On the Reading of Old Books. (It’s reprinted in God in the Dock.) In it he observes that as we read books written in various eras in the past, we can see thought patterns which we find silly and obvious which were apparently fully accepted in their day. That is, writers who were contemporaries of each other could each compose long arguments as to why the other was wrong, and yet as we read them from our modern perspective they seem to be in total agreement on certain points which to our minds are almost indefensible. And in each age, that which is agreed is specific to that time. For example, Jefferson and Madison were on opposite sides of nearly every political issue; yet along with nearly every other educated person of the day they felt that reason would ultimately reveal the one correct answer to everything. There have been cultures in which a man was expected to defend his honor or that of his lady by dueling, and others not even so long ago or far away as that which admired a man who committed suicide rather than bring the ignoble shame of criminal arrest on his family. Some of the things that were firmly believed and valued by our ancestors seem absurd to us today.
Lewis goes on to suggest that much of what we believe and accept as foundational principles is probably just as absurd; it would appear absurd to our ancestors and will to our descendants. He suggests that our descendants likewise will believe things which we find irrational and unsupportable. Societies always contain elements that do not make sense.
Lewis also suggests that if we can see the absurdities, the fundamental agreements of our ancestors which are patently mistaken to us, it will help us see our own absurdities. I’m suggesting that once we realize how committed to the irrational societies can be, we can build these non-sequiturs into the societies we imagine for our players. Not one of the people in that funeral procession thought they were being silly; not one considered that they were there not because they knew and loved this child, but because he was a ballplayer, someone on whom they had lavished attention because he had above average abilities in playing a game. And if you can understand that blindness, you can build that natural acceptance of the absurd into your non-player characters, and make it seem the most natural thing in the world that the governor of the province was selected because of his proven ability to balance a plate on a stick on his nose.