Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Wabi-Sabi

Probably one of the most neglected elements of storycraft is that of theme.  People love to talk about characters, settings and plots, but they often neglect to discuss or decide what a story is really about, or what it's really driving at.  I'm guilty of this too: Why worry about what a story is about when I'm in love with characters or a particular setting element?  But even so, I've found that themes serve as a strong foundation for a game, helping to shape my characters, my plots and my sessions.

If I had to pick a single, driving theme for Cherry Blossom Rain, it would be that of wabi-sabi.  The sentiment is similar to the Western concepts of "Seize the day!" or "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die," but decidedly less uninhibited or optimistic.  Wabi-sabi is noticing a wrinkle on a beautiful, young woman's face and seeing a hint of the grandmother she is to become.  It's watching the autumn leaves fall from a tree.  It's noting the ding on your favorite sword and finding that it has more character now.

Part of wabi-sabi is noting the effect time has on things.  Cherry Blossom Rain has a deep background: The legendary blades aren't just magical, but they have stories.  The clans and this war was already in motion.  Many games treat the history of a setting as a sort of eternity: The good king has always ruled the righteous kingdom, the evil empire has always threatened the freedom of the world, orcs have always rampaged at the borders.  If there is history, it happened thousands of years go.  In Cherry Blossom Rain, it happened yesterday, and it's still in motion.  The players find themselves not in an eternally unchanging world, but in a world that was the result of heaps and heaps of small changes over time, and that's changing still, changing around them and changing with them whether they want it or not.

But the main thing most people take away from wabi-sabi is the concept of fleeting beauty, the knowledge that you might have seen something beautiful, something worth cherishing, and now it is forever gone.  I've tried to steep my game with this notion: My game is not an endless parade of samey duels, but distinct moments that the players will never be able to get back.  First, wild adventures through the sinister Kamurocho and a unique opportunity to serve tea to their enemies and get to know them better.  Then, a moment of camaraderie in a hot springs.  Now, they stand on the precipice of war, frantically sharing their last moments with the ones they love, struggling to preserve what they have, knowing that tomorrow it'll all be gone.  I've complained before that my game has slowed to a glacial pace, and it's not because the players have nothing to do, but because they're doing so much.  Part of this, I think, comes from their growing awareness of the how fleeting the moment is.  They're grabbing onto these last few days and holding on tight, because tomorrow their beloved NPCs won't be there.  They might not be there.  Raoul in particular feels this keenly, as he sees himself as the most likely to die on Sword Mountain. Even the name "Cherry Blossom Rain" speaks to the concept of wabi-sabi, because I'm explicitly trying to evoke the image of cherry blossoms falling from trees, a moment of beauty caught just as it ends.

I really can't think of a better medium to show the principle of wabi-sabi than in a role-playing game.  A picture freezes the moment forever.  A recording or a video can be played over and over again.  But nobody will ever have a chance to play Cherry Blossom Rain again, not this way, not with these people, not this story.  It's behind us and done, a stream of fleeting moments, enjoyed and now cherished, but forever gone.  I find this the most poignant element of role-playing: My art is an art that's lost as soon as its shown.  No matter how wonderful a session, future generations will never have a chance to marvel at it the way they might marvel at one of Leonardo Da Vinci's paintings.  In that, a session's beauty is even greater precisely because of its fragility, the very essence of wabi-sabi.
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