Friday, April 23, 2010

DnD: Monomyth as a DM Tool, Part 4 - Crossing the Threshold

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. - Lao-Tzu, Chinese philosopher (604 BC - 531 BC)

It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. - Bilbo Baggins

Having committed himself to the journey (willingly or otherwise), finding his mentor-guide(s) - or, as Campbell refers to them, "the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him" - and equipping himself as best he can, the hero stands at the boundary of the world he has known and accepted for so long.  Taking a deep breath, the hero opens the gate and steps across into the unknown.  Campbell also makes mention of a 'threshold guardian' who stands between the hero and this new realm of being and magnified power.  This guardian does not always take an expected form, as do the mythological Cerberus or the castle guardians from Neil Gaiman's excellent Sandman series, but might appear as a friends or loved ones who discourage the hero and must be bypassed in some way before the journey can truly begin.

Examples of the Threshold

Samwise Gamgee, in Peter Jackson's LOTR movies says to Frodo, "If I take one more step, it'll be the furthest from home I've ever been."  There is not really a threshold guardian present (though one could say, symbolically, the scarecrow in the background fills the roll as a silent sentinel), but they do have their very first close encounter with the Nazgul shortly beyond that point.  At least one commentator suggests that the Hobbits' encounter with Old Man Willow - where they first come to harm (albeit minor) and must be rescued by Tom Bombadil - is the true threshold experience for the protagonist(s).

Luke Skywalker trades the known dangers of the Tatooine wasteland for the unknown dangers of the Mos Eisley spaceport, particularly the rough-and-tumble cantina, where his adventure is very nearly cut short before it ever gets off the ground (pardon the pun).  At the time of Luke's arrival, it is being patrolled by Stormtroopers, who attempt to apprehend the group.

In Stardust (another Gaiman creation), there is a very clear demarcation in the old stone wall that borders the protagonist's village.  An opening in the wall allows one to pass into the world of faerie, but it is stubbornly guarded by old man who takes his position as the keeper of the opening very seriously.

The scientists who managed to get the Stargate working (in the original movie of the same name) had no clue what - if anything - lay on the otherside of the shimmering, undulating portal.

Dorothy crosses two thresholds in the Wizard of Oz.  First there is the passage from consciousness into unconsciousness by way of the twister; shortly thereafter, she literally crosses the threshold of her mundane black-and-white existence into the color- and magic-filled realm of Oz.

The Threshold as a DM Tool

For a DM, crossing the threshold may impact a game on several different levels.  The first and most obvious being a threshold guardian that must be defeated, either by wits or brute force, before the party can continue their adventure.  Second, achieving a new level or tier acknowledges that the PC's have grown in some way and now have access to new powers and abilities with which to face the challenges ahead - which have also grown in difficulty. While the first two examples are fairly straightforward and go hand-in-hand with the basic mechanics of almost every role-playing system, a third instance - that of the symbolic threshold - is a bit more abstract and hard to define.  And yet, I would suggest that it holds the greatest potential of the three for creating a meaningful experience.

Monsters and puzzles are external conflicts and often represent forces outside of a person to be overcome. These situations might be cast, rather simplistically, as Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Man. What is left? Man vs. Himself.  The internal battles against doubts, fear, insecurity, and any number of personal shortcomings that we allow to tie us down and prevent us from achieving what Maslow referred to as 'self-actualization' are often some of the toughest battles a person will face in his or her lifetime. Compounding the issue is our inability to objectively handle and shape those feelings and understandings that shape our perception of the world around us.  In the real world, that is.  In the role-playing world, an able DM can construct situations that threaten from within, though doing so will require some preparation.

Depending on how much information a DM requires of their PC's at the start of an adventure, and the player's willingness and/or ability to 'put on' their characters and truly role play their strengths and weaknesses, these threshold experiences contain a great deal of potential for the characters' - and possibly even their player's - personal growth. Consider a player who is deathly afraid of spiders (a common fear) who must descend into a lair full of them to save a child.  Or a PC consumed with revenge who attempts to convince a king to forgive a slight, lest war claim thousands of innocent lives. Perhaps there is an accomplished thief who has something precious stolen from him.  These are not thresholds in a physical sense, but can serve as symbolic threshold experiences that, once overcome, empower the PC in some personal way.

Rewards for overcoming or passing a threshold may be many and varied, ranging from a simple bonus to skill checks or attacks vs. a certain type of creature, or a better understanding of the skills, powers and abilities one possesses.  What if, though, by overcoming a threshold challenge, a player arrives at a deeper understanding of her own motivations or behaviors?  A bit far-fetched, perhaps, but not outside the realm of possibility.

Pondering the Threshold
  • What, if any, personal obstacles have your PC's had to overcome?
  • Do you think overcoming a physical threshold guardian can be as meaningful a overcoming a symbolic one? Why or why not?
  • Is it possible for PC's to have a meaningful threshold experience as a group? Why or why not?
  • Do you ever include elements from your players' real lives into your adventure/campaign? What forms or roles do these real-world elements take in the game?
  • Have you ever had your real-world perceptions altered by a work of fiction?  Do you think that your adventure/campaign holds the same potential? Why or why not?

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