#RPGaDay2021 – Day 18 – Duel

Since the list of prompts was finalized, I had assumed that today I would be writing about the main prompt, write. However, as I sat down to write on this Wednesday morning for the 18th day of #RPGaDay2021, my eye fell upon the second prompt, duel, and I felt the topic shift in my mind. So, rather than set up a rivalry between prompts and force them to duel it out for the sake of honor, I will acquiesce to this urge, and choose duel as my prompt for today.

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Duel is a good follow-on post to yesterday’s prompt on nemeses. I think in a lot of cases we have been primed to expect some sort of show-down between noteworthy opponents to determine once and for all (or at least until a sequel) whose might will define right.

Over the course of growing up, we are shown the conflict between the singular hero and the singular villain, and how that battle of opposites on its 1:1 scale is a metaphor for some larger conflict. Often, these struggles are physical in nature, while often about or because of some larger and intangible idea like Freedom or some personal and more subjective idea like Revenge.

A competing version of this idea is the small team of specialists in the role of hero versus a similar team in the role of villain. The pattern is the same, but our means of interacting with the heroic aspects or in response to the villainous aspects is quite different.

Personally, I love the notion of the team and find it most applicable to RPG play, but the draw of the one vs one duel is more powerful still. Is it a test of arms, a duel to the death, a battle of wits, or a race to a prize? No matter the format, the challenge of one hero by one villain is compelling and an easy one to identify with. Have we not all struggled against someone at some point?

The World has Moved On?

One thing that makes me glad as a person, but a bit sad as a fan of fiction is that the idea of the hero has come under fire long enough and passionately enough that its point of inspiring us to aspire to be more than we are has gone out of fashion in favor of an equally important aspect of being a social animal – contributing our best to the efforts of the group for the benefit of all. While it is only sane and sensible to expect both of people, if it were easy, we would have accomplished it already.

This is where roleplaying games come in, and do so in a big way. In character-level play, we are not passive receivers of fiction, but creators and receivers both and in the same moment. We as a group are the team struggling against the forces which seek to snuff the light out of what we hold dear, and we as individuals are each members of that team struggling with that conflict on a personal level. In a real sense, it is the best of both worlds.

When physical conflict arises, we are fighting our own duels in the midst of the larger battle. We model it and we mold it in the same moment. When we wage wars of words our message may be that of the team, but the mouth that speaks is our own. In play, we become a part of the action and we become part of the metaphor. Likewise when we work together in sequence or in montage to combine our skills to handle a threat of some other nature, be it natural or existential, we are as much an individual in action as we are a part of the team…

At least, I think that is a satisfying way to conceive of and execute such things.

The Duel

The duel, though…. the duel! The best ones that I can remember in play had some specific qualities that stand out when I think about those experiences.

First, there was a lot of build-up over time to get to a point where the clash felt inevitable and necessary. Then there was the effort of meeting that necessity with the right actions at the right time to bring the duel into being. Anticipation and effort combined to make the moment meaningful, no matter how short or protracted the dice may have made it. For me as a player, it has been important that this period of time not feel planned or forced, but an actual outcome of the events of play. Plans fell through. The villain got away. A dilemma was created and to save something precious, revenge had to wait, and so on.

Second, once the duel took place, and at other times well before then, there were opportunities to interact verbally, not just physically, and the words of the opponent were as sharp as blades and as impactful as shotguns. Over the course of time spent in building the rivalry, in wrestling with the other’s opposition at a distance, at being taunted and defied, and of course the rising emotional energy at having the moment of confrontation fail to materialize again and again, the opponent and our opposition to that opponent takes on more and more significance, more and more detail, and becomes more and more personal. They stop being a villain, and start becoming our enemy.

Finally, there were aspects to the opposition that we could see in ourselves. In some important aspects, they were just like us, but heading in differing directions on divergent paths, or more explosively, in the same direction and path for opposing reasons. They might be trying to tear an organization down while we try to protect it in the first instance, or in contrast, they might be our rival in love in the second.

Lacking these qualities, I have found a villain to lack villainy and a duel to be just a fight.

In Our Play

Is it a duel, or is it a fight?

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