I had the good fortune to find two great loves in college. The first, of course, is my wife Amanda. The other is the Tao Te Ching (not to be confused with the oracular I Ching). If you have not read the Tao Te Ching, I would strongly encourage you to do so. It’s comprised of 81 poems, each poem consisting of a dozen or so lines. You can get through it in less than an hour and spend a lifetime really digging in.
I pick it up and read through it every few months and as I did so this time, I was struck by the usefulness of the work as a sort of guide to game-mastering. Many of the poems are general wisdom while others talk about rulers of nations. I doubt any of my readers rule real-world nations, but most of us rule over our own fictional RPG worlds. Wouldn’t the advice be as equally practical then?
In this and a small handful of later posts, I will be presenting poems from the Tao Te Ching and discussing briefly how they apply to game mastering. The discussion will be brief as too much analytical thought is inherently contrary to the aims of Taoism. Also, I will not be discussing all 81 poems, as they don’t all apply in the realm of tabletop gaming. I hope the poems I do share with you – many of which are my favorites – provide some fresh insight into preparing and running your games. Let’s start with Number 11:
Thirty spokes join in one hub
In its emptiness, there is the function of a vehicle
Mix clay to create a container
In its emptiness, there is the function of a container
Cut open doors and windows to create a room
In its emptiness, there is the function of a room
Therefore, that which exists is used to create benefit
That which is empty is used to create functionality
Many of us who run tabletop RPGs are natural storytellers. We have ideas for epic narratives weaving through rich environments and histories. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with that. We wouldn’t be playing if we didn’t like telling stories to some degree or another. Where we get confused as game masters is that the best gaming is not always to be found in our stories. Often the best gaming lives in the empty spaces our stories don’t fill. Among gaming circles, this is sometimes referred to as the ‘fruitful void.’ The irony is that, like the clay container, these voids require a modicum of circumambulating structure to best implement.
Rambling on and on about the idea is in fact contrary to helping you experience it as the Tao can only be experienced, not explained. (The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao) Instead I will end this post with a simple observation:
Four adventurers leave their hometown in a wide, endless world.
They immediately become lost and directionless.
They pass a shrine to the Hero Halimere who slew the dragon IsLaH with the enchanted blade Morningdawn and became the first Queen of Karkhoon.
The adventurers continue without looking.
They are asked by townspeople to clear out dangerous criminals from a nearby cave.
If they can, they will be made personal bodyguards to the Prince who is leaving on a mission to the Southern Sea.
The adventurers defeat the criminals and find loot.
What’s in the loot? Jewels, gold, some art and a magic sword.
What kind of art? A painting.
What is the painting of? Um.. a jungle landscape.
Forget the Prince, where’s this jungle?
Thus begins the journey of a thousand smiles.