Saturday, December 15, 2012

Zappadan, Day 12: On the importance of context

Today I will present without too much additional comment a full concert video from a Zappa show in Barcelona (1988).

I got to see Zappa live in 1984, at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall in Portland, Oregon. I was 15 years old, I think. I drove up with my friend, Dale, in his '64 Ford Falcon. It was snowing that day, and we were fearful that we'd not be able to make it. But we did, and it was awesome. It was one of the best shows I've ever been to (along with Oingo Boingo), and a formative event.

The lesson, here, is one of context. A lot of the videos I've presented during this series were single songs or interview clips. Taken in isolation, they say something particular. However, they can also be understood in a broader context of history and as parts of a larger "text" of Zappa's (and his cohorts') works and lives. Those additional  parts are largely ignored in watching the singleton videos. Seeing a full concert is a bit more encompassing, though even it doesn't really look at the longer span of the man, his bands, and their collective history as a musical act from the 1960s onward.

When we look at the various games that we, as a collective of gamers, play, we have a tendency to hack, tweak, excise, or otherwise manipulate the various rulesets. We houserule everything, almost by reflex. Yes, sometimes we caution ourselves that it's important to play the game as-written before doing so, but I think that doesn't always happen. I'm not saying that it's a mistake not to play it as-written, mind you, but it is something different than was was intended by the author(s)--and, no, I'm not going to get into broader discussions of authorial intent. Suffice it to say that I'll assume that the games as-written were made purposefully to work as they do.

If we approach those games humbly, accepting them as-written, we might not find the game we really want to play. But we do get something from which we can learn if we're not too caught up in our own cleverness, in form of a relentless foisting upon the games our own proclivities and quirks. We may lose something vital that's only present when we play the rulesets in their original form. I'm wondering if perhaps this is part of the urge to recreate The World's Most Popular RPG in it's original form, or from it's original authors' intentions and notes, or whatever. We're trying to see the thing as itself, free from the accretions of decades of tweaks, changes, modifications, additions, supplements, houserules, etc. We are trying to see the face of the creator, as it were, and there to glean some essential experience and/or knowledge not available to us otherwise.

I, for one, am doing my best to play Dungeon Crawl Classics as-written. When my cleric can't make a spell roll, it sucks. When he can do so, or when my warrior (Thumpy McStabsalot) crits a monster back into the shadowy hell from which it sprung, then it's awesome. If I tweaked these rules to make the outcomes less quirky and random, it simply wouldn't be the same game. DCC is about Shit Happening. Sometimes said Shit is pure epicness with awesome sauce. Sometimes it's a greasy shit sandwich on stale bread. That's DCC. That's what it brings to the table: The opportunity to create an epic tale of might and magic... and of suckage and haplessness. It makes for some great stories. And it is freakin' awesome. They meant it to be that way, and that's how I'm playing it.

This is not to say that all rulesets are equally well thought out or playable. They're not. But I think it's pretty important to play them through the first few times with a sense of humility and curiosity, to be attentive for the unique facets of each ruleset, as-written. That makes for excellent opportunities to learn and become wiser, to become gaming wizards in the original sense of that word:

c.1440, "philosopher, sage," from M.E. wys "wise" (see wise (adj.)) + -ard. Cf. Lith. zynyste "magic,"zynys "sorcerer," zyne "witch," all from zinoti "to know." The ground sense is perhaps "to know the future." The meaning "one with magical power" did not emerge distinctly until c.1550, the distinction between philosophy and magic being blurred in the Middle Ages. As a slangword meaning "excellent" it is recorded from 1922.

So, now... watch the Great Wizard Zappa as he goes about his work. There's something to be learned.

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