RPGaDay2021 #14: Safety

Today’s RPGaDay prompt is “Safety”. While I could write about safety for players of the game, I feel like that would be doubling the post I made for the 10th day of RPGaDay (“Trust”). Instead, I’ll write about safety as a story component.

Either Limits or Momentum would also have been very interesting to write about.

The essence of most stories is some version of a lack of safety; at some point, danger has to be introduced into a situation. The core of any story is a change to a situation, and most change introduces some measure or risk or danger. After all, it’s easiest to stay the same. The danger may be the risk of leaving behind everything that’s familiar, such as leaving a steady job for a better but more uncertain one; or, alternatively, the risk of staying the same, such as when when a natural disaster is coming but a group refuses to leave. Either way, danger is a crucial element to introduce into a storyline to motivate action.

Danger, however, is only relevant when it’s contrasted to safety. As I wrote in the RPGaDay 2021 #11 post, the relevance of the danger of wilderness is that it’s contrasted to the safety of the village, town, or city. However, this is also a very structuralist view rooted deeply in semiotics. In those types of literary analyses, everything comes in binary pairs. In those perspectives, Lord of the Rings is about Sauron versus Gandalf, Dark versus Light, and so on. Structuralist analysis argues that all stories move from A to B. First the story is at A, it then moves to Not A, before going to Not B, and arriving at B. If A is “Bad” and B is “Good”, you have the basic stucture of a comedy or a feel-good story. As you can imagine, if A is “Good” and B is “Bad”, you’re dealing with tragedy. While dealing with concepts of safety and danger in this sense will lead you to decent story structure, it also runs the risk of oversimplifying and marginalizing. To give a simple example, the story of a group of people reaching a new land might be a story of moving from bad to good for them, going from danger to finally a place of safety, but for the native population is might be a story of tragedy, where their safety was broken by the danger of opressors invading their space.

That last example leads to a literary theory that I find far more interesting, namely post-structuralism (or post-modernism, depending on who you ask). Part of what this theory argues is that because words are defined in part by their opposite (as structuralism argues), it also means that no concept is fully on its own. You’ll always have to refer to other things to find meaning. Imagine an alien on earth, who is intelligent but completely unaware of any earth concept. If you needed to explain to this alien what a pen is, you can say it’s a metal device to transfer ink to a paper. The problem is that you’ve now introduced three new concepts: metal, ink, and paper. So, you’ll have to explain those three. As you can imagine, each will introduce several new concepts yet again. Because of this, a postmodernist would argue, meaning is always shifting and just out of reach. So, in that example above of the group moving to a new land, the postmodernist would ask what “good” means and whose good we’re talking about. To a postmodernist, each story, each argument carries within it everything to undermine itself, because there can be no absolutely certainty and clarity.

That to me is also the most interesting way to handle safety and danger within RPGs. Yes, there needs to be pressure and release, narratively, to facilitate reflection on the parts of the players. At the same time, however, it’s quite interesting to have the evil cave of the goblins that is threatening the village turn out to be their home. The players delve into the dangerous cave with weaponry in hand to discover parents cradling their children and warrior goblins taking up arms only to form a cordon around their family. The safety of the village was never in question, and because of their ignorance, they turn out to be the inadvertant aggressors. To steal a famous example, that magical ring that can render you completely invisible also slowly corrupts your being into evil. It provides a player with tremendous power while simultaneously making it into a slave of the antagonist. This kind of handling of safety and danger makes conflicts complex and interesting.

After all, that fictional steady job that you can leave for a better but uncertain job isn’t necessarily a scary type of danger but an exciting one. It’s a question of risk versus reward and cost versus benefit.

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