Every game occurs in a place. Each instance of a finite game, certainly, has a very specific place it occurs. Superbowl LI tool place at NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas. In general, American football takes place not in a specific place, but at any number of places that can be considered football fields. But we know that American football, especially at the college and professional level, is not just a matter of a ball and players on a field with goalposts. It is a cultural phenomenon. To really be what it is, it must either take place in the USA or if it happens somewhere else then that place must be seen as an other place, a different place, considered in relation to the USA. In Canada, we have Canadian football, which is a very similar game. It is not the same game, not just because of the small differences in rules, but also because the places where it happens are different.
The American election of 2016, a political game, also took place in the USA. There are many differences between that and Superbowl LI, but the thing they have in common is that both are, to some extent, affected by the fact that their place is in the USA. The existence of such a place rests on its mythology. It is therefore inevitable that the game is affected by American mythology. The word myth does not mean “false.” It means “story.” Specifically, a story that explains why something is, with more regard to meaning than to historicity. Every game has a place, every place has a people, and every people has a myth. Therefore, to understand a game, one should be aware of the mythology that surrounds it. Some games are affected more than others: a game of chess is more easily divorced from its context than the Rose Bowl Game which is more easily divorced from its context than a general election.
Turning our attention to the sort of games I spend more time writing about and playing than football, the typical tabletop RPG is saturated in myth by design. It needs to be, because in construction of a fictional world we have to explain why the kingdom is good (and therefore the current evil king is an aberration rather than a normal leader), or why life is so rough under imperial rule, etc. In games where the place is either the real world itself or a fictional facsimile we can assume certain things: we usually don’t have to explain what Britain or China is in order for us to understand that the games which take place there. We do have to do that for players pretending to be characters in a fictional world. It is not necessary for every DM to do world-building to the same extent as Tolkien because of the metamyth that most people who play these games are already aware of. We have assumptions about the existence of wizards and elves and dwarves and fair folk that ease us into the particular mythology being created for games like Dungeons and Dragons whether in famous settings like the Forgotten Realms or the DM’s own creation.
Joeseph Campbell identifies four functions of myth:
- The Mystical: connecting us as individuals with something much larger than ourselves, whether it is considered formally divine or secular awe and wonder
- The Cosmological: explaining how and why things came to be the way they are in form and function
- The Sociological: shaping and justifying the power of society
- The Pedagogical: teaching what is and how to live a good life
Some games are very limited in scope, and therefore do not interact with all of the functions of the mythology of their place. American football, for example, has very little to do with cosmology. It does, however, have a lot to do with American beliefs about social order and how to live a good life. Other games try to build an entire universe, and must therefore concern themselves with all four functions. The bigger, richer, and more detailed the universe, the more time and effort must go into constructing the mythology of the place.
There are different ways to go about building a world and I am not here to tell anyone how to do it, but the approach I am taking right now to the world I am building for tabletop roleplaying is to consider the mythology of the place using Campbell’s four functions, in order to guide where the details need to go. I will try not to get too bogged down in the practical aspects (names, maps, pantheon, characters) until I can see the need for each of those things to serve at least one of the four functions. The goal is to make the tabletop adventure as inseparable from its setting as American football is inseparable from America. It’s a bit more work, because players don’t enter the world with as much experience with the mythology, but success in this endeavour will be a place that endures by the power of myth.