Today, as I was unsuccessfully trying to get my dog Finn’s attention to get him out from underfoot, my wife tried to observe that Finn “was interested only in leash”, but it came out “was interested only in lich.” It made me wonder what sort of specialized monster-hunting dog breeds exist in heroic fantasy worlds.
Does the city watch descend into the sewers with a pack of ghulhunds, bred to root out undead in close spaces? Are there wyvern-tolling retrievers? Are dungeoneers perilously close to a TPK ever unexpectedly rescued by a St. Bernard/blink dog hybrid with a cask of healing potion around its neck? Do some parties bring along specialized trap-sniffing dogs? (If for no other reason than to be able to say “What do you mean we didn’t say we check for traps? The f&$(%ing dog always checks for &#)(%ing traps, it’s literally the meaning of its existence!”)
Inquiring minds want to know.
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Many players bring an aesthetic that I think of as cathartic play to their relationships with their characters . The cathartic playstyle approaches roleplaying as a venue for players to take risks or indulge impulses in ways that might have unpleasant consequences in real life. The satisfaction of cathartic play is the chance to blow off steam.
Consequently, cathartic characters are often similar to their players, but with certain traits amplified and certain inhibitions muted. In a more extreme form of the aesthetic, these characters may be wholly designed around the traits to be amplified. I’ve known people who used short-tempered characters to work through their anger issues; I like to play impulsive people from time to time as a break from my usual overthinkery.
More commonly, however, a cathartic character is simply a version of the player who kicks more ass and isn’t afraid to be a jerk. This milder form of the aesthetic is extremely popular — at its root, traditional “hack and slash” gaming boils down to “It’s us, but we’re killin’ orcs and takin’ no guff from nobody.”
Theorizing about roleplaying poses me a difficult challenge. I’m generally dubious about totalizing theories of playstyle like the GNS scheme or the older Adventurer/Problem-Solver/Roleplayer triad — I think they all tend to highlight real and interesting issues, but they tend toward the Procrustean, trying to cram all game styles into a fairly limited space with questionable success.
On the other hand, I gravitate to stylized categories like a moth to a stroboscopic bonfire. It’s a character flaw.
The way I’ve decided to wrestle with this particular issue is to keep my theorizing on a lower level, focusing on value clusters that prize particular types of gameplay experience. Borrowing, folding, and spindling a term from the MDA framework, I’m going to call these clusters aesthetics of play. These aesthetics are not intended to be exclusive; multiple aesthetics can be, and usually are, operative for any player at any time. I’m going to try to avoid constructing opposing pairs of aesthetics, as I’ve had limited success with that in the past, but I may present two different approaches to a single issue at one time.
I’m also going to take this opportunity to note some stylistic ground rules. In all Aesthetics of Play essays (and, probably, other future theoretical works), I’m going to be using bold for emphasis. Italics are going to be reserved for introducing terms of art. I’m certain that my choices of terms of art are going to seem questionable to someone at some point; I recommend Jargon and Definitions before writing me snide emails about my choice of terms. You can write the email regardless, but I’m going to ignore anything along the lines of “That’s not what X means!”