D&D 5E D&D and Escapism


The topic of escapism came up in another thread, and I thought it might be a worthy subject in and of itself, as it pertains to D&D and RPGs in general.

Where else to start but with a quote, and one from JRR Tolkien?

"Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. if a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?....If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!"

That quote is from Tolkien's seminal essay, On Fairy Stories. You can find a similar sentiment--if with somewhat different emphases--in various writings of Ursula K Le Guin, such as her fantastic "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" In that piece, adapted from a speech given in 1974, Le Guin defends fantasy literature from what was, at the time, a rather snobbish attitude in the larger literary community.

Le Guin doesn't only mean Americans, but "very highly technological peoples." She speaks not only of an "antifantasy" attitude, but an "adult" attitude that is antifiction: "I don't have the time for such things." In Le Guin's view, there is a general attitude that one grows out of such things and enters the "real world" - away from such childish things.

While I think we've evolved from that attitude to some extent, it still lives on in various ways. For many, fantasy (or other "escapist pleasures") are more akin to guilty pleasures - perhaps the spectacle of a Marvel film to while away a couple hours, or immersion into an HBO series at the end of one's busy day.

Of course for the RPG player, it is a different matter, and in some ways it is closer to the experience of artists and other creative types. In fact, I would suggest it is quite similar, although "hobbified." Some RPG players, especially DMs, do consider their RPGs as a form of art. It might not have a product as the end result, but it does involve a performance. Some even take just as much or more pleasure in the background work: the world-building and campaign construction, so for them the "artistic product" is the world itself, or the campaign.

I don't want to summarize Le Guin's essay, if for no other reason that I think it should be read by one and all, at least those interested in fantasy, in the imagination. She talks about the "uses of imagination," that its most important or primary use is "to give you pleasure and delight" - that this is a worthy and noble use, in and of itself.

She also speaks a "next-to-truest answer," which is to deepen one's understanding of the world and people. We could also add in something Tolkien's fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, said, that imagination is what allows us to feel compassion for others - that unless we directly experience something, we can only know it through our imagination; without such first-hand experience or a developed imagination, we cannot know the experience of another.

Le Guin believed that all of the faculties developed and emphasized in children--particularly the imagination (but I would also add, the ability to play - which I would define as an activity done on its own merit, without a underlying purpose or ulterior motive)--should continue with us as adults. Or as she put it, "an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived."

Now this is not to say that there aren't unhealthy forms of escapism, be it addiction or avoidance of things we don't want to deal with. But in terms of activities that give us "pleasure and delight," that are forms of play and imagination, they are only escapist in either the way in which Tolkien spoke of them--as an escape from imprisonment (whether drudgery or Neo's Matrix)--or they are not escapist at all, but natural and healthy forms of experience.

Meaning, if you take either Tolkien's or Le Guin's view, the whole notion of "escapism" is turned upside down. If we take Tolkien's view, to play "beyond the field's we know" (to quote Lord Dunsany) is an act of emancipation, perhaps from cold rationalism and the mechanisms of our society; to take Le Guin's view, is engaging with a most vital inner spring of wonder and joy.

Before I end, I'd like to bring this back to D&D. While this might sound overly simplistic, I think it really comes down to what gives you pleasure and delight, what feels like play to you. The imagination is a deep and varied wilderness, and fantasy comes in a full spectrum of tones and flavors. Or to put it more prosaically, one person's yuck is another person's yum. I think when we end up in squabbles about what is and is not escapist or, worse yet, what is and is not "true D&D," a lot of it comes down to a feeling that we are being attacked by the same people that Le Guin was addressing - those who see fantasy as childish nonsense, as silly and unworthy of our adult attention (except ironically, or as a way to let off steam after a day's work). Meaning, those for whom their inner child did not survive, but died (or at least went into a coma!). But I think if you are reading this, you are not one of those people - and thus our arguments are generally, or least often, based on a false premise.

For me, my primary and favorite avenue of joyous imagination and meaningful play is working on my novels, and developing the world they are set in. There is nothing quite like sitting down, opening up a document, and diving in. Or pulling out my notebook, sparked with an idea, and scribbling down ideas and images that my imagination dreams up. I experience some of this in D&D, and I know anyone reading this experiences it as well. It is not that there aren't other aspects or pleasures, but that distinct quality of imaginative wonder that fantasy, especially, can evoke, is a precious jewel, all too rare in the "matrix" we call the "real, adult world."

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