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games for two played by one

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I confess that when I was a kid I was into Dungeons and Dragons. * Actually, really, the whole TSR line of games, and even some extra-TSR sets. Twilight 2000 was my last and longest and greatest love in this line.

In fact, I was something of a preternaturally precocious D&D expert, dragging my mother to the local bookshop to buy me a rulebook or module a week when I was, ahem, in the first and second grade. I actually remember one time the bookshop guy telling my mother that there was no way that I could want these things at my age, and half-refusing to sell them to me and her. I can’t remember how she responded, but I’m sure I got my book.

Anyway, problem was there was no one to play these things with. I was a bit early with them, so my friends were out of the question. (Seriously, this is not a story about my titanic genius. I was way smarter as a kid than I am as an adult. That’s what years of sports related concussions and long-term substance abuse – all of the legal varieties! – will do for you! Sad really! So that is absolutely not the point – you’ll see….) Plus, due to a sick mother and the fact that I was an only-child in the deracinated NJ suburbs, I spent lots and lots of time entertaining myself in my bedroom.

And so… I learned to play the games by myself. Which is, of course, if you know anything about RPGs, impossible. The basic setup, for the uninitiated, goes like this. Let’s presume that there are four players. Three of the players will be characters, and the other one will be what is called the dungeon master, or DM for short. The DM controls the scenario, she or he sets the backdrop, the scenarios that are encountered by the characters. You are in a small room with doors on three sides. Through the door on the left, you hear a low cackling. There is a box of tinder on the floor. The players who are characters make decisions about what to do within the scenarios devised by the DM. I choose to take the tinderbox and open the door on the right. There is a third element, that adds contingency to the whole show – the dice. Both the dungeon master and the characters, at different times, roll. The former does it to add an element of chance to the story that he or she is telling (if I roll five or higher, an ogre will bound from the door on the left….), and the latter use the dice to determine the outcome of chancy actions, such as fighting. (I need to roll a four or better to kill the goblin with my mace…)

I hope it’s apparent why it’s impossible to play these things by yourself – the person who is responsible for the suspenseful story is also, at the same time, the characters who are at the whim of suspense. You know what’s behind the door on the left while at the same time, for the game to work, you can’t know what’s behind the door at the left. It’s hard for me to remember how much I actually played these games, rather than simply reading through the modules (premade scenarios) and developing and equipping characters…. Probably not all that much. But the amazing thing is that whole swaths of my young life were given over to such fruitless and seemingly unfun endeavors.

That said…. What a strange but perfectly appropriate preparation for a life of reading, writing about, and writing for myself a bit of fiction. What better materialization of the strange psychological state that one has to enter into in order to write narratives – knowing, but not knowing, what’s behind the door, what awaits the character if she does A, B, or C. I am just now starting to think that everything I am interested in, deeply interested in, about fiction probably had its start with these games for two or more played by only one back in my bedroom. The intense mandate to generate the unexpected, combined with the sheer impossibility of actually making something happen that really is unexpected, as well as the bizarre god-like stature of the author, who, during the modern period, would do anything, would commit to any sophism about impersonality, in order for the game to go on the way it was intended – both of these things are vividly analogous to what I was doing when I was filling out character-sheets and rolling twenty-sided dice on a card table while sitting on my boyhood bed.

One does wonder, however, whether another path toward some other sort of fiction isn’t hidden behind the branches of my childhood loneliness. A collaborative sort of fiction, that puts the emphasis not on the dice, that old standby of the lazy avant-garde, but on the presence at the table of other people, people who are able and permitted to make their own decisions about what happens next. Both of the people that I am reading at the moment – Flaubert and Ballard – in their ways describe the writing of fiction as a sort of experiment, as a process bent on testing hypotheses and presuppositions. Perhaps a new type of fiction, a fiction aggregate not only thematically but also at the site of production, would benefit from the lessons that I learned back there, trying to make myself believe that I didn’t know what I knew right from the start, because I had read the book cover to cover before we even started to write it.

* Since there is a natural line on continuity and causality between D&D play and gothic dress, I just thought I might mention: had a conversation last week in which I asserted, as was confirmed in my assertion, that the most unthinkable thought in the world is the thought that pictures me as a goth. It is not, in fact, that I don’t like goths or ex-goths. It is simply an unthinkable thought. Probably has a lot to do with the fact that I was during my formative years a catholic school jock, though a reflective or even overly-reflective one, hellbent on getting off the field to smoke pot and write poetry (and escape my father’s menacingly disappointed gaze). I will, perhaps, say more about this in a later post.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 30, 2009 at 12:09 am

Posted in aggregate, fiction

11 Responses

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  1. Your antipathy to genre fiction must be tied up in this childhood hobby then…?


    June 30, 2009 at 8:47 am

  2. Yep! Exactly. Post coming soon – this was the runup to a fuller (and way more nuanced, with luck and effort) post on “genre.”


    June 30, 2009 at 10:01 am

  3. Please tell me you’ve spent quality time with Wilhelm Meister, even in translation.


    June 30, 2009 at 2:23 pm

  4. Hmmm should I?


    July 2, 2009 at 7:32 pm

  5. This whole discussion of being simultaneously the creator of your own illusion and one falling for it is fairly significant in the narrative, not to mention the fact that the text is invested in some other questions (identity/facelessness, capitalism/bourgeois-ness, etc) that seem to intersect with this blog. But it seems to me that actually talking about Goethe sucks all the interesting right out, so I’ll leave it at that.


    July 3, 2009 at 1:49 am

  6. I used to play my first RPG game by myself too, it was an Italian knock-off of D&D called Signori del Caos. I got around the whole “you can’t be the one who decides what’s behind the door and the player at the same time” conundrum by devising modular scenarios which would come up in random order. So for instance if I chose to cross the river then one of three things could happen, and if I chose to enter the dungeon there was a choice of other things. The characters encountered in the scenario could be allies at first and then perhaps later flip under certain circumstances. At least that’s how I remember it. But mostly later on with more complex games such as Runequest I enjoyed being the game-master rather than the player, yet I think I still played the scenarios by myself first and use some of those subterfuges there too.


    July 4, 2009 at 9:21 am

  7. w.,

    Will acquire WM and read, yes. (It’s interesting to note that I almost always take blogrecs, meaning I get them, I read them… I don’t trust the real world to recommend me books, but I trust my readers…)


    Yep, sounds like the same sort of scenario. It’s like we were, when we did this, spontaneously recreating Oulipoite practices of contingency-generation while playing the games… Is interesting…


    July 5, 2009 at 9:56 pm

  8. Unfortunately Coover’s Universal Baseball Association is not the book it should be–lone-gamer-as-author metafiction, a bit schematic and musty. But perhaps worth a glance.


    July 6, 2009 at 3:28 am

  9. Ah, yes I’ve read that! And in fact, once I was finished with the RPGs, I turned to computer baseball simulations! So, exactly!


    July 6, 2009 at 6:37 am

  10. Can you clarify what you mean by collaborative fiction here? Collaborative in an expanded exquisite-corpse sense (multiple authors generating the text?) or in an expanded hypertext/choose-your-own-adventure/The Unfortunates/videogame sense (a semblance of freedom for the reader; or the dungeon master as major author and the players as minor authors)? In any case I fail to follow your move from solo D&D (solo writing) to group D&D (group writing); what lessons would solo D&D have for group D&D, let alone for group writing? Or are you saying that group D&D has lessons for collaborative writing?

    Maybe check out Bernadette Corporation’s Reena Spaulings. It’s either a good-bad or a bad-good book; supposedly co-written by 150 people; as if Williamsburg got together and wrote a novel–that is, it’s worse but much more interesting than if Park Slope had. John Kelsey, of BC, recently translated Michele Bernstein’s All the King’s Horses; and RS is somewhat in that spirit. The introduction should amuse/annoy you, anyway (available here:


    July 8, 2009 at 1:26 am

  11. Sam,

    I am thinking here about “collaborative” as synchronously developed by multiple “authors,” per the D&D game played by 2 or more at a card table.
    I agree that collaborative writing, at least in the examples that we’ve already got, rarely leads anywhere all that interesting. I’m most interested (for reasons of temperment as much as anything else) in the lessons of single-player RPGs for the writing of fiction… Or at least simply the way that the problems of fiction writing are materialized in this improper use of a collaboratively intended form.

    Another way to put it is that we relax a little bit about contingency and epiphany revelations when we’re hanging around with other people in the real world (a little bit – all of us still worry about these things a bit, I think) but when we sit down to play the MPG of life by ourselves on paper or in a Word document, suddenly those matters move to the center of of the matter. Fiction is to the real world what D&D played by one is to D&D played properly… I think that was the main point here, for now…

    I just ordered the book! And I owe you an email – which I’ll write when I get to the office!


    July 8, 2009 at 7:05 am

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