Modernism, Postmodernism and Meta-Modernism in Roleplaying


old books lining a shelf

I saw a good Youtube video on this topic. It was in reference to movies, but I believe it has application to games, and I found it somewhat fascinating. If this article interests you, I’d recommend watching the video in its entirety as well!

In brief, modernism in this usage was/is a somewhat nebulous cultural mode that emphasizes direct narratives with strong moral or societal stances, wherein the plot and characters serve to reinforce this stance. The storytelling is often direct, lacking unexpected twists. Its force comes from its execution, delivery and assurance in its themes.

Postmodernism was a reaction to this, and it often deconstructs the genres and ideas established by modernism. The motivations and characters are less clear-cut, the worldviews are less assured, and the takeaways and endings don’t necessarily leave us with clarity or a sense of finality. The ambiguity is often the point. These can sometimes be seen as more realistic, reflecting dissonance and unresolved concepts that better reflect reality. But this can sometimes (not always) also come packaged with a cynicism or nihilism that juxtaposes with modernism’s moral assurance and narratively definitive plots.

It can also lead to interesting, nuanced stories without clear takeaways but rather endings that cause you to reflect and think. This can be great! Cynicism isn’t the only end point or goal of such stories.

Meta-modernism is yet another reaction, one that also includes elements from internet culture, where nothing exists on its own but rather in a multifarious context with other media, interpretations, constructions, reconstructions, reductions and extrapolations. It recognizes that neatly-defined narratives aren’t realistic, but also tends to reject that the narratives themselves or creating meaning from them is fruitless or unrealistic.

The best example from recent years might be Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s self-referential, flirts with the nihilism of postmodernism, includes references to pop culture, and uses the multiverse as a metaphor for how our lives often feel. Yet it finds meaning within this insane, pointless wheel of sensory inputs.

Application to Roleplaying Games

I sometimes encounter indifference or even disdain toward the fantasy or sci-fi genre’s tropes and typical narratives. Ignoring for a moment that some who are
experiencing the tropes for the first time will still find them fresh, it’s easy to understand how the same types of stories can lead to a feeling of staleness for some.

This isn’t a “right or wrong” manifesto, by the way. None of these schools of thought or artforms is the “winner” here. No mode of storytelling is inherently
better than another. They’re merely tools in a larger toolbox to understand how we relate to stories. But back to my musings…

This staleness can lead some to their own form of postmodernism or meta-modernism. Grittier, more “realistic” takes on genre tropes can reinvent them for those who are tired of more linear, modernist narrative. But is this more satisfying? Possibly for some, but I’d contend that there’s going to be a limit here, past which
the lack of narrative finality and assurance will rankle most.

I’ve found that a large part of why I play roleplaying games – and why some others do as well – is because it’s possible to establish clear and ultimate purpose to actions. We often lack this in everyday life. It’s not even a hero fantasy, though it could be that too. But in a villainous campaign, or one without strong moral convictions, there’s still an understood and discernible purpose. Maybe the players define the purpose, maybe the GM defines possible purposes or the more grand purposes. But everyone agrees to this and it’s what drives the narrative and action, and what provides the emotional payout.

It’s hard for some groups to go a single session with a Disney reference, or Monty Python, or whatever. Meta-modernist, self-aware or self-referential language informs a lot of our interactions in modern life, and it’s easy for this to seep into our gaming. We likely all play in meta-modernist campaigns to some extent. We’re dipping in and out of traditional story structures and deconstructions of them that are aware of the structures we’re roleplaying within.

However, I do like the framework, moral or otherwise, that tends to organize the campaigns we run and the stories we tell. I enjoy establishing a purpose, overcoming obstacles on the way to that purpose, then achieving it.

Ideally, at least, barring TPK, group dissolution, etc.

Deconstructions are interesting, they can tell us something about how we relate to stories and what stories we tell ourselves to find meaning or purpose. There is a place for questioning simple or linear narratives that seem pre-destined to happen as-is. But there’s power in those stories as well.

Top Gun: Maverick was an example used from recent times. The essayist contended that it’s been praised as a great “throwback” movie largely because it established
a premise and characters, clearly holds strong convictions of conduct and rightness, then delivers unwaveringly on those narrative promises. There are no major twists, but it’s sincerely and confidently executed, and therefore has a satisfying emotional
payout. Which is actually strange for a modern movie, since so many feel the need to be self-referential or to deconstruct some element in their whole.

It’s a modernist movie, to stick with the parlance I’m using here. There’s still power in that when executed well. But as soon as you doubt your premise, it lands with less force.

It’s popular to trash more recent Marvel films, and while I think some of that hatred is disingenuous, I do think part of their problem is that they don’t trust their own storytelling enough. Instead they undercut it with postmodern or meta-modern attempts at humor, self-awareness or self-referential material that falls flat. Their earlier successes weren’t flawless, but they trusted themselves more to simply tell a powerful story.

The Storytelling Takeaway For Game Masters in Roleplaying Games

I think there’s an embedded lesson in this fact, for storytelling in general. Belief in the story you’re telling as a GM and the conviction to stick to narrative beats and emotional payouts matter. And without undercutting them with self-aware or humorous caveats that try to make it seem cleverer than it needs to be, ones that actually blunt the story’s impact. These have their place, but not at the expense of a central belief in the story you’re collaboratively telling at the table as you play.

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